Bailie on the Parthenon Frieze

Notes on Lectures of the Florilegia Institute by Gil Bailie
Series: “The Gospel of Luke”
Tape #9; Re: “Sidestepping” Luke 16-19:27
Excerpt of the final illustration used in the lecture

  1. “New Analysis of the Parthenon’s Frieze Finds It Depicts a Horrifying Legend,” by John Noble Wilford, New York Times, Tuesday, July 4, 1995
    1. This example has more to do with us.
    2. Introduction: Structurally, conventional culture lasts from the moment of its founding violence — the generative violence that creates the comradery out of which culture is made — from the moment of that founding violence until the sacrality of that violence wears off and the system begins to fall apart. And then you have a crisis which is either resolved ritually, or in a full blown re-enactment of the original crisis — and you either have a new culture or a cultural revival with a sacrificial ingredient. That’s Nietzsche’s “eternal return.” That’s culture being created and falling apart, created and falling apart, and so on. When Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic philosopher, says that violence both destroys and creates, that’s what he’s talking about. Chaotic violence destroys the culture, and then when the violence is polarized perfectly onto the victim, it generates culture. Culture lives from the moment of its founding violence until its sacrality wears off. Its sacrality wears off precisely when we begin to see its victim. That’s why the victim is the Rorschach test. Can you really see the victim? And, if you can, then the sacral mystification has worn off, and you’re about to stumble upon the gospel truth. The epistemological block is about to be removed.
      1. We are living at the end of a cultural moment: for the most part everybody realizes that the Enlightenment is over. With the Enlightenment rationalism, we took the eschatological promise of the gospel and converted it into something secular, namely, the idea of progress. We converted its hope, which is theological, into optimism. The ideas of progress and simple optimism have been collapsing. Yesterday, Girard said to Gil, “You know the Europeans knew it was over after World War I, when it was still only alive in Russia and America.” The latter were twin versions of that progress and optimism. Even now it’s catching up with the Russians and Americans.
      2. One of the features of Enlightenment rationalism is that it regarded itself as non-sacrificial and as no longer encumbered by any of those things. The truth, however, is that it was secretly indebted to the non-sacrificial truth of the gospel, on one hand, and secretly encumbered by other sacrificial truths to which it was turning. When, in the Renaissance and later, the Western world looked for some sort of respite from the gospel revelation, it turned to Athens. Because it seemed that when one turned to Athens one saw civilization, composure, rationality, humanity, democracy, all these wonderful these, without all the craziness of the biblical tradition, all this stuff about violence. It seemed less violent in Athens.
      3. When our paradigms come to an end, sometimes we need a marker, like World War I for most Europeans. If we need a marker for the collapse of Renaissance and Enlightenment humanism and rationalism, it might be the new understanding of what is actually depicted on the Parthenon Frieze. The Parthenon is not just an architectural structure. The Parthenon represented, in many ways, everything that fascinated Europeans about Athens. It stood for everything that glowed in the eyes of Europeans when they turned from the biblical tradition to the Greek tradition. So it’s not just another building. And so what would happen if we were to discover that this building commemorated the same sort of thing we’ve been talking about today. It would mean, “The bloom is off the rose.” Our romanticism is over. Yes, but it would really mean that the Kingdom is breaking in on us. It means that something else is being revealed. What we’re talking about here is a recent, very persuasive interpretation of the Parthenon Frieze which sees it as a depiction of human sacrifice. This is interesting because the Enlightenment saw itself as a non-sacrificial project, and now we look back at the central shrine at which Renaissance humanism worshiped and we find out it’s a shrine for human sacrifice. That’s the Gospel breaking in on our myths.
      4. The following story comes from the New York Times on July 4 [1995]. That’s ironic. Because the hardest violence to realize, the last one we want to expose, is our own founding violence. We might legitimately argue that, in our own eyes, we had no founding violence of our own, and so it turns out that we were feeding on their founding violence. In some ways, the founding violence of modern rationality was the founding violence of Athens. Now, we realize that it was boldly depicted right in front of our faces. We had eyes but could not see. The Gospel is what helps us to recover our sight — not because it wants us to look at all these gory things, but because the revelation of the truth of that God is always on the other side of the Cross. In order to get there, you have to go through that experience of seeing it for what it is and hearing the cock crow. Here, we have a modern version of that.
      5. Reading from the beginning of the article: “Standing in columned splendor atop the Acropolis of Athens, the Parthenon is the paragon of classical architecture and has long been a shrine of Western civilization. The Greeks built this temple to the goddess Athena in the fifth century B.C., in the golden age of Pericles…. Set high above, on all sides in the shadow of the exterior colonnade, was a 524-foot-long frieze in low relief depicting various stages of what appeared to be a single solemn ceremony. A cavalcade of mounted soldiers was followed by people bringing animals to sacrifice and bearing offerings by musicians, maidens and elders. They approached a central scene above the east entrance, where among other figures, a man and child held a large cloth. The interpretation of these scenes is now facing a serious challenge for the first time in two centuries.” The original interpretation was that “the frieze represented the Panatheniac festival, which was held every four years to commemorate the birth of Athena.” (This is a little bit like the Nativity story.)
      6. Continuing to read: “Now the discovery of fragments of a lost play by Euripides…” This is so exciting, so much better than “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” or some such thing. This is real drama here! How does the gospel break in on us?! How do we realize these things. “Now the discovery of fragments of a lost play by Euripides, found on papyrus in the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy…” You couldn’t make this up! Somebody should do a screen play. “Now the discovery of fragments of a lost play by Euripides, found on papyrus in the wrappings of an Egyptian mummy, and the diligent research of an American archeologist have produced a much different interpretation [than the birthday one]. The scenes of the frieze do not depict a fifth-century procession, according to the new thesis, but instead evoke the Athenian founding myth of a king’s precious sacrifice to save his city from defeat. Such an interpretation may be more satisfying to scholars and more revealing of early Greek culture and mythology — but it may also become controversial and eventually disillusioning.” If we live in illusions, disillusionment is progress. “To think that this iconic structure of grace and just proportion could turn out to have been dedicated to the glorification of a practice as primitive, cruel and irrational as the sacrifice of children!” You can feel something breaking in on the myth. Sometimes people hear me speak and they say, “Gee, this is terrible. You aren’t very optimistic. Are we going to get out of this?” I’m a pretty happy guy, basically. It’s like Jeremiah says, ‘You have to have your tree planted by the riverside.’ And Abraham Heschel says, ‘Our roots have to go deeper than the hopes and fears of history.’ If we don’t touch that eschatological promise when we come upon these things, we’re going to feel terrible. To the extent that we have our roots in that promise, these things don’t bother us that much. But, if not, we want to get up and leave. There’s something right about that, because we intuitively realize that without these illusory hopes in progress and optimism, we would become nihilists. There’s another alternative, of course: to get in touch with the eschatological promise. Continuing [after repeating previous sentence]: “And worse, that it dated from the time the Greeks were boldly experimenting with democracy and rationalism…” Boy, doesn’t that say it?! Remember when we were talking about the Moki culture [previous illustration in lecture]: the archeologists were saying that this was a booming thriving civilization. This is what we have to realize. By the way, in Violence Unveiled this is what I try to say about Greek rationalism: it never gets back to this. It will circle around it and never get to it. The tragedians got to it, and that’s why a key to this whole thing is fragments from a lost play by Euripides. But they can’t win. Philosophy went into orbit around the sacrificial event and never got back to it. Back to the whole sentence: “And worse, that it dated from the time the Greeks were boldly experimenting with democracy and rationalism, from that age whose creative spirit the Renaissance sought to emulate.” There you have it.
      7. Reads most of next four paragraphs detailing the kings sacrifice of his daughters to save Athens, ending with: “Greek writings of the time were making much of the sentiment attributed to [Queen] Praxithea that just as boys go to war, girls go to sacrifice — both for the good of the polis, the city-state.” Isn’t that something? This is an early form of ‘equality.’ War is a sacrificial ritual, and prestige in ancient culture is always in direct proximity to the sacrificial event. If you are the manipulator of, or the victim of, the sacrificial event, you have tremendous prestige. If you fall in war, you’re remembered as a great hero. You’re sacralized. In the same way, with the sacrifice. Women couldn’t go to war and take part in that prestige, so you have Praxithea saying the girls should have as big a shot at it in their version of the sacrificial ritual.
      8. The reporter interviews a number of people about the profundity of this new interpretation. One of the scholars is quoted: “‘It is surprising in retrospect that nobody familiar with the conventions of Greek temple decoration’ had thought of the new interpretation before.” It is surprising, isn’t it? What kept them from thinking of it. This is having eyes but not seeing. The article goes on: “most scholars have chosen to ignore such questions and cling to standard explanations, but not Dr. Connelly.”
      9. Reads several paragraphs to the end of the article. What’s important about this? The frieze has sat there so long, and, even in recent times, the incoherence of the existing explanatory theory was clear to people. We had to wait for lost lines from the play from Euripides. Two questions. (1) If we had been reading the gospel anthropologically, when we would have discovered this? Would we have discovered it earlier? I think so. (2) Without the gospel, would we have ever discovered it, even if we had discovered the entire play of Euripides? The answer is no, I would say. If we were reading the gospel anthropologically, we would have discovered it, with or without the play of Euripides. And if we didn’t have the gospel, we could have the play of Euripides, and we wouldn’t have discovered it. Not just that a certain ritual had taken place, but the significance of it. With the gospel, we’re beginning to feel the significance, what that means about us humans.
  2. This has been offered as a substitute for something which years from now we’ll surely know is far superior to all that, which is chapters 16-19 in the gospel of Luke.
    1. But in those chapters the question arises again and again about how the Kingdom is going to break in on the world, and how we’re going to know where to look. “Where the corpse is there the vultures gather,” and so on. The tombs open at the crucifixion, etc. We were simply trying to live up to the spirit, if not the letter, of the commitment to the gospel of Luke. These old sacrificial systems that we’ve referred to today were the source of stability. They were also the source of illusion and all kinds of other things. But they were the source of both cultural and psychological stability. And they’re vanishing today. When Augustine said, “We are restless until we rest in thee,” I don’t think he realized that the restlessness was a product of the biblical tradition, in the sense that the old sacred system had a stabilizing effect. When restless Westerners started traveling all over the globe and came upon these traditional peoples and they began writing about “noble savages” because there was a composure that was sacrificial but impressive. The question is: what will be our source? Or we will be restless. Our source of stability has been shattered. [Jean Luc] Marion, and so many other in the tradition, have talked about prayer, contemplation, and so on.
    2. Quote from Romano Guardini: “Silence overcomes noise and talk. Composure is the victory over distractions and unrest. Only the composed person is really someone.” Because of our restlessness, confusion, and disorder, “we do not yet really exist as persons — at least not persons God can address expecting a fitting response.” As the Kingdom breaks in and shatters these old mythic structures, with their passing we lose the structures that made it possible for us to experience certain cultural and psychological stability. We’re coming unglued. And the gospel has another source for us, another kind of selfhood, a selfhood that doesn’t include an entity called the self, a discipleship self, a self that cannot be distinguished entirely from the God who is the ground of its being. If these old structures pass without some compensating shifts on our part, then the world will suffer from the very violence that these sacred systems existed to ward off.
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