The View from Mars Hill:   Love and Hate in the Cities of Man, Part 1 (of 3)

I recently returned from three weeks in Greece.  Near the end of our trip we visited the site of ancient Corinth, where Paul defended himself before Gallio, a Roman governor who was half-brother to the younger Seneca, the philosopher who served as prime minister to Nero.  Paul was fortunate in having an intelligent and educated Roman as his judge.  After hearing the complaint that Paul was making innovations in the way Jews worshipped their god, Gallio informed them that his jurisdiction did not extend to policing the words and names used in Jewish rituals and instructed his men to drive away Paul’s accusers.  

I also visited, as I always do when I am in Greece, the Areopagus or the Hill of Mars, the low craggy prominence behind the Acropolis.  Many centuries before Paul’s visit, the Areopagus had been a special tribunal made up of former archons, the magistrates who governed the Athenian republic.  After ill-advised democratic reforms in the Fifth Century, it still retained jurisdiction over murder trials, and as such it is the setting for one of the greatest meditations on justice ever written, the final play of Aeschylus Oreseteia.   That play has been as systematically misrepresented by critics and scholars as the Constitution of the United States or the epistles of Saint Paul himself.  In it, Aeschylus affirms the ancient bonds of kinship and the demands of revenge for blood, but incorporates them into a rule of law that combines respect for kinship with the requirements of a just and sane political order.  

Although radical democrats in the Fifth Century had stripped the council of jurisdiction over anything but homicide trials, the Romans had later restored and amplified its powers.  In Paul’s day, therefore, the Council had broad judicial and administrative authority.  His position was probably quite precarious, since his talk had aroused the suspicion about this Jewish “seed-picker”—a term of abuse for bums who picked up scraps off the street.  The implication was that Paul was a recycler of other men’s ideas.  More seriously is the hint that he is introducing strange gods, a serious charge in the city that executed Socrates on those very grounds.

The opening of the speech is generally translated as “Men of Athens, I observe or regard you as rather superstitious…”  This seems an inauspicious opening.  Of course in the later Christian contexts, deisidaimon is usually applied to non-Christians and means something like “superstitious” or “believing in a false religion,” and Pagans occasionally applied the word in this sense to Jews and Christians, but in classical and Hellenistic Greece the word is typically used in the positive sense as of someone who fears divine power and is therefore pious, or religiously observant.  Unless Paul was looking to be flogged, he and his hearers must have taken deisidaimon in its original positive sense.  

[The LSJ Greek Lexicon cites Theophrastus’ portrait of the superstitious man as an example of deisidaimon in the negative sense but this is slightly misleading.  Naturally, as an Aristotelian Theophrastus regarded  any strong attachment as a distortion.  F.F. Bruce, in his fine commentary, makes hash of the passage.  He begins by correctly assuming it is used in a positive sense but then goes on to say it doesn’t matter because Paul regarded pagan religion as superstition—as if it is ever a critic’s job to declare what is going on in someone’s mind.  He goes from bad to worse in dismissing the idea that Paul could be ingratiating himself with his audience, by pointing out that sycophantic openings—standard in Greek rhetoric—were said not to be allowed on the Areopagus.  The source for this is the satirist Lucian, who is not always to be relied upon for historical accuracy, but assuming he is right, Lucian was only saying that emotional appeals of any kind were forbidden at murder trials on the Areopagus.  The use of deisidaimon is hardly an emotional appeal.}  

Paul’s evidence for Athenian piety is that he had seen in the Agora a dedication “to the Unknown God,” whose identity Paul is prepared to reveal.  There is nothing unusual in such a dedication.  Greek pagans were routinely concerned not to offend any god either by referring to him by an incorrect title or by omitting his name in an invocation, thus Aeschylus, in his great Ode to Zeus, begins, “Zeus or by whatever name you wish to be called….”  It is simple prudence to avoid falling into the problem of the aliens who had been settled by the Assyrians in Samaria.  Since they did not know how to propitiate the god of the Jews, they were being eaten by lions as a consequence [II Kings].

Paul carries his diplomacy even further in quoting the Cretan poet Epimenides and referring him as a prophet, a word that means—as you all know—not someone who foretells the future but one who reveals reality.  Not content with quoting a pagan religious poet, Paul points out the one feature of Greek religious thought that makes them more prone to accept Christ than the Jews have been, namely, the belief that we mortals are of the race or offspring of god(s). As Pindar, the greatest lyric poet of the Greeks or any nation, put it:  “One is the race of gods and men.”

Now that we have joined Paul at the top of Mars’ Hill, we can look up toward the Southeast to see the ruins of the Parthenon shining in the sun that beats down on the acropolis, and, if we turn our gaze to the North and look down, we shall see the ancient Agora, where the citizens of Athens met to buy and sell and play politics—the very place where Paul saw the dedication to the Unknown God.  

These two sites, Acropolis and Agora are the two centers of a Greek city, and the two poles around which the life of the citizens revolves.  In the Bronze Age, the acropolis of Athens and of other Greek cities was the site of the rulers’ palace complex, but after the collapse of the Bronze Age civilization that Homer evokes in the Iliad and Odyssey, the kings dwindled into petty chieftains and their ancient citadels were occupied by the gods.  This is anticipated by Homer, who describes Athena as returning to her home in Athens in the palace of King Erechtheus, and even in classical times, the Acropolis was shared by Athena’s Parthenon and the Erechtheum.  

A Greek temple was a place of worship, but it was not a church.  There was neither teaching nor preaching, but worship services were conducted during festivals, which typically included great barbecues.  In Athens the greatest of these festivals was the Panathenaia, which took place every year and in every fourth year it was celebrated with great splendor, as the new cloak was presented, as the culmination of a long procession, commemorated on the frieze of the Parthenon, to the cult statue of the goddess.  It was at these festivals of Athena—and of other gods—that Athenians became a unified nation of families and kin-groups, bound together by Philia, a word which is often translated as friendship but it included family membership and kinships as the primary exemplars of this attachment.  

I want to underscore this point because most conventional historians of ancient Greece give the impression that Athens was some sort of Jacobin republic like the USofA.  In fact it was divided into self-administering neighborhoods and into clans that were religious brotherhoods with their own rites.  The festival of Apollo known as the Apatouria was celebrated by these clans, known as phratries.

The temples and festivals on the Acropolis celebrated the unity of villages and clans in Attica, united in the bonds kinship and friendship the Greeks referred to as philia.  Down in the Agora, men bought and sold goods and competed for public honors.  Barbarians had little trouble in understanding the Greeks’ attachment to their gods, but some of them were puzzled by what took place in the Agora.  The Persian king Cyrus told the Spartan envoys that he did not fear any people who gathered together in the marketplace to cheat each other, a description that applies as much to our own Congress as it does to Wall Street.

  It is not that there were no temples in the Agora: One of the best preserved Greek temples, probably devoted to the god of the forge Hepahestus, was set on a hill in Athens jutting up from the east end of the Agora, but the greater part of this public space was devoted to two activities: commerce and politics, in both of which the ruling passion is not Philia (friendship or kinship) but Eris (competition or strife).  The very layout of Athens—and most other Greek cities—hints at a creative tension between the religious and familial side of life represented by Acropolis and the competitive, market-driven life of the Agora.  

Of course the layout of every Greek city was determined by its geography.  In the Sicilian city of Acragas—modern Agrigento—there was a citadel but also a flat-topped crag overlooking the sea where temples were built in the Fifth century.  The largest was a temple to Zeus, on which Carthaginian prisoners labored after they were defeated in their attempt to conquer Sicily in 480.  The Carthaginians, who were baby-sacrificing Phoenicians would no doubt have preferred to build a modern abortuary.  

The poet-Philosopher Empedocles was a prominent citizen in Agrigento.  Empedocles is most famous for his theory of the four elements, which he used to explain the development of diversity in a universe that Parmenides had shown had to be a changeless divine being.  To account for change and diversity, Empedocles proposed four unchanging elements that he named earth, air, fire, and water.  These elements were joined and separated in an unending cosmic rhythm of creation and dissolution.  The four elements were first principles (like the atoms and particles of modern physicists), but they were also divine beings with names.  The cosmic rhythm of evolution and devolution was the result of the actions of two forces, Friendship or love (Philotes, a variant on Philia) and Strife (Eris).  

It is a complex theory of evolution, which includes an account of the development of complex organic life out of simpler and less complete forms, but I shall try to sum it up in crude terms relevant to this discussion.  Friendship/Love is the power to attract opposites, and when Friendship is dominant, the four elements associate together to produce complex substances like flesh and blood, but when Strife, which brings like to like but repels opposites, is on the increase, the elements begin to break apart.  

The landscape and layout of Greek cities can be looked upon as a dynamic tension between religious shrines that express the unity of the people and the marketplace where economic and political competition is carried on.  In Greek we might say, following Empedocles, that the Acropolis and the Agora of ancient cities are the realms of Philotes or Philia and Eris, and their respective institutions are characterized by community and society or, to use the German of Ferdinand Toennies, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft.  

In making this distinction, Toennies was summing up a long tradition in Christian thought that distinguished between communitas and societas.  A communitas is a natural unity of family and friends in a bond of love and religion.  In the primary community, a family, members do not have to like each other but they do have to share a regard for each others’ interests.  This is what Robert Frost was describing in his description of home as “a place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” and “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

Christians often speak of their “church home,” implicitly acknowledging that a church or religious brotherhood is another form of community bound by love.  We might also include other little communities such as private and religious schools, traditional charities, social clubs, and even neighborhood associations.  

A society, on the other hand, is an association of allies or comrades or teammates, who band together for a purpose, such as winning a war or a football game or making money or gaining power.  The Greek for the members of such a group is hetairos—a comrade or companion—and groups of hetairoi would often form to overthrow a government or at least to monopolize power. In other words they constituted a political faction or party.  We Americans like to pretend that parties are public-spirited societies for good government, but the Marquis of Halifax knew better.  He said a party was at best a conspiracy against the nation.  Significantly, the feminine form hetaira, which basically means companion, was applied to the higher class of prostitutes. 

  In our human world, there can be no realm of love or strife/hate that is uncontaminated by its opposite tendency.  The economist Gary Becker has analyzed the family in terms of the competition of members both for the affection and resources of the parents.  While Becker pushed his argument much too far, there is an element of competition in most families, but, in a healthy family, competition takes second place.   How the atheist libertarian Becker ever got nominated as a social science advisor to Pope John Paul II is something I cannot answer.  

Anyone who has ever joined the board of a school or church or a non-profit foundation—and I have made the mistake of doing all three—knows how petty vanities and jockeying for position can poison the atmosphere and interfere in the common work.  And as for priests and pastors, it is no accident that the term odium theologicum is used metaphorically to describe the bitter squabbling of petty minds.  On the other hand, many a profit-driven entrepreneur has hired a less than qualified brother-in-law, and comrades-in-arms and players on a football team can become genuine friends.

 Nonetheless, although no institution can be purely a community or society, a healthy commonwealth will keep these two tendencies distinct without making a rigid separation—there were usually temples, after all, in the Agora while the Acropolis celebrated the military defense of Athens in the form of the Temple of Athena Nike.  Still, it is important, at least in principle, to keep these aspects of life distinct, no matter how intertwined they may be in everyday life.  The rule of love dominates in the family and in religion; it is accepting and non-discriminatory within the group.  We love our children and siblings not so much because we can honestly say that they are better than other people but because they belong to our little community, and how many churches tolerate a poor singer or organist because she is loved or pitied?  The rule of strife, on the other hand, is the law of the marketplace, of athletics, and of politics, where competition for success is more based on merit than on friendship—though this is more often an ideal than a reality.  

In our personal lives, we make a mistake in applying the laws of love to the realm of strife, and vice versa.  No one should marry a spouse to get even with a faithless lover or claim to make war for philanthropic motives—as the government of the United States has routinely done ever since 1861.  In the former case, we are deceiving and betraying the person with whom we have promised to share our life and deprived him or her of the possibility of a happy marriage.  In the latter we are deceiving not only the victims of our "tough love,” whom we bomb and napalm into submission, but also ourselves—or at least the people whose votes and moral support give the ruling classes the power to kill strangers.  When Americans declared war on Japan at the end of 1941, it was for the normal and healthy purpose of avenging the deaths of so many Americans who died in the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, whereas the destruction visited upon the peoples of the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan—and now the Russians of Eastern Ukraine—was justified—with almost unparalleled hypocrisy--as a defense of international human rights.  

Tyranny arrives either when the forces of market and politics invade religion and family, as happens in Capitalist societies, or when religious principles of sharing and equality are imposed on competitive enterprises—as under communism and socialism.  In the well-ordered cities of Athens and Agrigento and Rome, we can see a perpetual tension between the bonds of love, manifested in family and clan, and the divisions caused by strife.  If a family is united by love, it is also divided against the rest of the world by the laws of revenge.  

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina