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The legacy of ancient Greek politics, from Antigone to Xenophon

What do the pamphlets of the English Civil War, imperial theorists of the eighteenth century, Nazi schoolteachers, and a left-wing American artist have in common? Correct! They all see themselves as in dialogue with classical antiquity, drawing on the political thought of ancient Greek writers. Nor are they alone in this; the idea that Western thought is a series of “footnotes to Plato,” as Alfred Whitehead suggested in 1929, is a memorable formulation of the extensive role of ancient Greece within modernity. Further reflection, however, will show that the West does not have an unbroken connection with ancient Greece, as knowledge of both language and culture declined in the medieval period – even the great Renaissance scholars sometimes struggled to master their ancient Greek grammar and syntax. Once the West does recover a relationship to ancient Greece, is its own role confined to writing “footnotes” under the transcendent authority of Plato? Perhaps we can reconstruct more varied forms of intellectual engagement.

One thing to remember is that the political thought of ancient Greek was not itself monolithic. The democratic experiment of classical Athens, the idealistic militarism of Sparta, the innovative imperialism of Alexander – such plurality of political forms gave rise to a wealth of commentary that ranged across the ideological spectrum. Moreover, texts that are not only political but have other identities too, like Athenian history or tragedy, also involve sustained reflection on the organisation of society and the workings of power. So the political writings of ancient Greece are not confined to Plato, or to Plato and Aristotle, and they offer a range of political positions.

Xenophon in Thomas Stanley's History of Philosophy (1655). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Xenophon in Thomas Stanley’s History of Philosophy (1655). Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Conversely, Western thought does not simply accept the authority of Greek texts, despite the huge cultural clout that the classical world undoubtedly wielded during much of European history. Instead, we can see later writers using the classical past as a partner in dialogue, to be variously embraced, rejected, modified, and sometimes transformed out of all recognition. For instance, recent research has shown how Xenophon has been understood as forerunner of Romantic exploration, American militarism, and Nazi ideology. From the opposite perspective, an appeal to the classical past has often shaped and altered the discourses of modernity, calling its basic assumptions into question. The study of this complex kind of engagement is currently undertaken by scholars in classical reception and The Legacy of Greek Political Thought Network enables classicists, historians, and political theorists to learn from each other how the classical past has been debated, interrogated, and contested in post-classical political writings.

The Network is interested particularly in studying the political work of ancient Greek writers other than Plato and Aristotle, and we also want to move away from debates about democracy to investigate how ancient writers have been deployed to pursue many other arguments. Topics studied recently range from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, taking in republicanism, colonialism, pedagogy, Aesop and Antigone. Pamphlets from the English Civil War include reflections on Sparta as ideal democracy, which challenge our current understanding of Spartan politics and imperial theorists of both Britain and France focus on Athens as paradigm of imperial power and decline, with considerably less interest in the city’s democratic identity. German pedagogues in the 1930s drew on Xenophon for characterisations of political leadership that they applied to the autocratic politics and culture developing in their own society, while Aesop provided a way of figuring radical politics for Hugo Gellert, an artist in 1930s New York. New readings of Antigone, via political philosophy as well as drama, enable further consideration of the relations between classical reception and political thought. The current political context presents challenges both relatively familiar and wholly surprising, but we can expect a dialogue with antiquity to continue.

Image: Plato’s Symposium – Anselm Feuerbach. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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