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Author Biography: Norma Thompson is associate professor of political science at Yale University.
For a single political entity, the ancient Greek polis is remarkably varied in its literary incarnations. From Homer through Aristotle, poets, historians, and philosophers contribute to an evolving idea of the polis, such that a recognizable core exists despite the vast expanse of time that separates its origins from its culmination. Such a core apprehension of the nature of the polis has emerged from scholarly efforts to trace its features, projected and material, within the framework of specific genres. Most prominent for the relative transparency of their evidence are historical and archaeological studies. Single-author studies of the polis are deemed manageable as well, and Aristotle in particular is the subject of endless inquiry, with an alternating emphasis on historical or philosophical components of the polis. Political studies are undertaken which embrace more diffuse sources of evidence, from speeches to tragedies, comedies, and other performance occasions. The development of the polis and of Greek drama proceeded in parallel and with a reciprocating influence, each profoundly impactingthe other. Efforts to delineate the polis within distinct genres have produced a rich, sprawling, and unconnected profusion of material, and leaves unasked the question: what core elements of the polis interest poet, philosopher, and historian? For me, this is the crucial element of the polis-its affinity for productive tension. To explore this dimension, I will consider Homer's Odyssey at the origins of the polis, Thucydides' Peloponnesian War at its breakdown, and Aristotle's Politics at its "resolution." In that unlikely series exists a single story in the service of the polis.
Homer stands alone among these writers as the storyteller, but beyond this he "authorizes" the polis in the Odyssey as Odysseus and Penelope relinquish themselves to a public narrative of their union. Odysseus and Penelope are forcibly kept apart after the end of the Trojan War, yet they establish the reality of their attachment in thought and in the telling. Each appreciates that the story line is not under his or her full direction, but entails, rather, a surrender of self. Their patient and reverent bearing toward the world is a defiance of its brute materiality; they are able to subsist in imagination. The successful end of Odysseus' homecoming is the providential beginning of the polis, where masculine and feminine influences are commensurate. The polis, in its tenacity about its own narrative, will mirror this essential feature of its founding couple.
Thucydides has a less heartening story to tell of the polis, but it is a story. Without any bow to postmodernism, and without detracting from the historical value of The Peloponnesian War, I argue that Thucydides makes his own war out of the conflict between Athens and Sparta. His accomplishment is such that there is no getting behind him to the "real" war; competing accounts, archaeological evidence, and information added all now pass through a Thucydidean filter. Homer and Herodotus each made the Trojan and Persian wars his own, but Thucydides' achievement is distinctly compelling because of his contemporaneous marshalling of the evidence.
Aristotle's monumental contribution emerges from his story of a polis unattached to any one city in history. One aspect of his success in reconstituting the polis is Homeric: his sense of urgency in connecting oikos and polis. Nothing matters so much for the polis as its "homecoming" and renewed link with Nature. A second aspect is Thucydidean, as Aristotle uses inherited historical exemplars, so that Athens and Sparta serve as anchors for his modification of the polis. But Aristotle refines these historical exemplars out of existence; a preferable "middle" term beckons above and beyond them. He restores and reconstitutes an old version of the polis, one more respectful toward the feminine corrective in theory than the polis ever was in practice.
An announced interest in the counterpoising ways of the Greeks-culture versus nature, reason versus emotion, public versus private-would once have been met with indifference; this is, after all, a people for whom the voice of wisdom declared "measure is best" (metron ariston). But now binaries are presumed to camouflage the disparagement of women, and there hardly appears room for debate on the subject. The claim is ubiquitous: women were excluded from politics in the Greek polis, in both theory and practice. In sharp contrast, I find that Greek profundity extends even into reflections on gender. The polis is indeed marked by polarities, but where polarities exist, they generate challenges to thought: how do things stand with men and women, with masculine and feminine? how must they? My look at the most telling productions of ancient Greece finds insights about men and women far more profound than even the most far-reaching charges of misogyny allow-such as the account of the Peloponnesian War, which locates a total of two "praiseworthy women" in the entire text. The great writer is not dupe, but interrogator, of the subject matter. My claim is that the Greek discovery of the polis is premised not on exclusion but on tension, and when it falters, its best chroniclers take note. At its productive best, the polis produces tensions which accommodate masculine and feminine forces alike.
Homer and the Origins of the Polis
The Odyssey is a story of the reunion of husband and wife, seemingly a celebration of oikos (the household) rather than the polis. It has been noted that the word polis appears rarely and only once in conjunction with Ithaca. Two individuals are called upon to endure unimaginable trials and uncertainties; how could their eventual reunion signify the grounding of political community? My answer is that the Odyssey depicts the coming together of oikos-polis in accordance with nature and in ways that mark them as inextricably connected. Only in the end is the natural sign of the constancy of Penelope and Odysseus revealed-the marriage bed centered around the stump of an olive tree-but all along assertions of their need for each other is alternately a provocation or an inspiration to others. If Homer's "pre-political" political community is not an obvious point of departure for an examination of the classical polis, it surely is a defensible one; it anticipates nicely Aristotle's claim that the polis as a whole is naturally prior to the oikos (Pol., 1253a19-20). The presumption here is that the logic of the political community is manifest already in the Iliad and is assumed in the Odyssey.
Odysseus identifies as the greatest gift in the world likemindedness (homophrosyne) between man and woman: "No finer, greater gift in the world than that .../ when man and woman possess their home, two minds, / two hearts that work as one." That likemindedness which characterizes Odysseus and Penelope is hard-fought and may reasonably be called a spiritual accomplishment of each. For the challenges that confront them separately fall into narrow "male" and "female" types; the perils exist at either extreme. Monstrous creatures like Polyphemus and Scylla have to be dispatched or at least encountered, and so, too, do the more ordinary personages like the suitors; all seek to diminish the force of the mutual attachment of Odysseus and Penelope. It is as if each gender as a collective resists the claim that the two individuals belong to each other. The responses of Odysseus and Penelope to these challenges entail an opening of themselves to something larger than their single gender types. Their shared understanding challenges others to commit themselves to something more than mere physical survival. This will have its imprint on the polis, for in the end, Ithaca emerges as a balanced construct; this is their "life story" (23.227-230). Human remembrance is at the center of this story, for it can accommodate impossible complexities.
The significance of memory and the threat of forgetting is palpable in the Odyssey, then, where the very existence of Ithaca as polis is at stake. The challenges to Odysseus' homecoming, the obstacles in the way of the successful tale, are of both male and female countenance. The male version is evinced by Poseidon and his kin, featuring an outsized antagonist who is ferocious when roused-and distinctly ill-mannered. Odysseus seems to be just the heroic type to confront this kind of an obstacle, since even in the Iliad he is the one to live by his wits, redrafting the warrior code even while existing within it. In the Odyssey we are reminded of the radical nature of this shift when Odysseus encounters Ajax in the underworld; even in death, the more brawny warrior cannot forgive the slight of being passed over by his peers for the likes of Odysseus (11.620ff.). But the cunning and endurance of Odysseus are more pivotal in the Odyssey than in the Iliad-and more suggestive of feminine undercurrents. His repeated challenge is to bide his time, to suppress his appetite and his spirit (thymos) until a more propitious moment for its expression. His success frequently derives from his forbearance. So Odysseus resists the urge to do direct battle with Cyclops, foreseeing that even if he and his men could overcome the giant, they would still be trapped inside the cave. His ruse of concealing grown men under Cyclops' sheep is the work of no ordinary soldier. Only his taunting of Polyphemus after their escape reminds us of the older ethic, but clearly Odysseus is not enclosed by old denotations of manhood.
Later, Odysseus resists eating the cattle of the Sun when his shipmates succumb, despite the dire warnings all had received against that transgression. This single example from the Odyssey signals the critical spiritual dimension to the formation of the polis. Odysseus' men are warned repeatedly that the herds are the possession of the god Helios and thereby marked as sacred and inviolable. Alarmed for his men, Odysseus convinces them to take an oath vowing never to harm the cattle. And so long as food remains plentiful, the men respect the prohibition. With hunger comes weakness, and susceptibility to the nefarious leadership of Eurylochus: "Listen to me, my comrades, brothers in hardship. / All ways of dying are hateful to us poor mortals, / true, but to die of hunger, starve to death- / that's the worst of all. So up with you now, / let's drive off the pick of Helios' sleek herds" (12.366-369). In an instant the cattle become sustenance to men who must eat. What gives one man the strength to refrain? Odysseus is elsewhere on the island, deep in prayer (12.359)-mindful of the immortals as he struggles to situate himself properly, to make the distinctions that give meaning to a human life. He alone of his shipmates earns his homecoming, and he does so in self-abnegation. And Odysseus' singular reverence for the gods is a learned trait-the Odyssey opens with mention of his sacking of the sacred citadel of Troy (1.2)-and one that is of particular interest regarding the long-term implications for the polis, for how the polis fares ever after can be plotted in accordance with the presence or absence of this spiritual component. Odysseus reveals new interior dimensions. Back in Ithaca and confronting indignities in his own home, Odysseus urges himself forward: "Bear up, old heart! You've born worse, far worse" (20.20). His response to physical assault by the suitors is an ominous shake of the head. There is no hint of a diminished hero, and the slaughter of the suitors and the hanging of the servant women testifies to a barely contained brutality. But it might also be said that he confronts the ordeals sent by Poseidon with a distinctly feminine appreciation for the indirect defense.
Other challenges to Odysseus' homecoming are put in terms of forgetting, and there the embodiment is often female. Threats of female sexuality abound, with the stories of the "bad sisters" Clytemnestra and Helen (first cousins to Penelope) never far from mind. In Odysseus' travels, goddesses and prospective wives alike seek to envelop him in a protective atmosphere, to shield him from danger by means of a gentle oblivion. Alternatively, Scylla-like, they seek to devour him alive. But, as Odysseus observes, there is no fighting that nightmare (12.242), whereas he can resist the forgetfulness induced by contentment. And at the same time that the poet shows Odysseus resisting these external threats, the "inside" view on this topic is also projected. Beginning with the enchantresses like Circe or Calypso, continuing through Helen of Argos, and culminating with Penelope, a line is traceable in the Odyssey which signifies an eventual triumphant association of "female" and "constructive remembrance." "Happy Odysseus!" the ghost of Agamemnon will proclaim: "how well Icarius' daughter remembered you" (24.210-213).
In one way or another, the goddesses in the Odyssey who transfix human beings make mere animals of them; these goddesses may choose also to rouse men out of this state. But for that sea traveler who comes too close to the Sirens, there will be "no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him, / no happy children beaming up at their father's face"; his fate will be to loll about in the meadows (12.48-51). The unmindful man goes to that fate willingly. The Lotus-eaters similarly induce loss of memory such that anyone who tastes the lotus fruit wishes to graze there forever (9.106-110). As Odysseus struggles to sustain his clarity of purpose-his homecoming and renewed rule in Ithaca-he neutralizes such potent magic as practiced by the Sirens, who captivate with their enthralling tunes of the old world, or by Circe, who literally transforms his shipmates into swine. But even he has to be stirred by his men to think of his own home after Circe indulges him in pleasures for a year: "there we sat at ease, / day in, day out" (10.514-515). Circe is implicated alternately as the source of the forgetting ["but into the brew she stirred her wicked drugs / to wipe from their memories any thought of home"(10.259-260)] and credited as the helpmate in its overcoming ["But I will set you a course and chart each seamark, / so neither on sea nor land will some new trap / ensnare you in trouble, make you suffer more" (12.28-30)]. Here and elsewhere, the female is recognized both as "the problem and also the solution; [women] are the signs of our mortality, and also make it possible for life to go on," in Redfield's fitting assessment. But an elevated human life "cannot go on" without an act of self-possession, and this the goddesses would disclaim of Odysseus. Even Calypso wishes to possess Odysseus forever, on her terms. Only on the order of Zeus does she release him, and this without ever apprehending the drive he feels to return home. If you only knew, she cautions him, "down deep, what pains / are fated to fill your cup before you reach that shore, / you'd stay right here, preside in our house with me / and be immortal" (5.228-231). Odysseus' decision to refuse her offer of immortality is a move-inspired by the right woman-to possess his self.
Helen, daughter of Zeus, hearkens to another world while living on in this one, and so assumes an intermediate position on this topic of remembrance and self-possession. Her role in the old Iliadic world was as a subject of song ("Zeus planted a killing doom within us both, / so even for generations still unborn / we will live in song"); as a result, she is largely immune from responsibility for her role in the events. Helen in the Iliad is like nature itself, a given. The elders of Troy look on at Helen, in wonder, but not in judgment: "Who on earth could blame them? Ah, no wonder / the men of Troy and Argives under arms have suffered / years of agony all for her, for such a woman. / Beauty, terrible beauty!" (III.187-190).
Excerpted from The Ship of State by Norma Thompson Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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