Theseus, Plutarch and the Athenian Origins of Our Liberty

   For the Fourth, instead of read the Declaration downtown, as was once the practice, I had planned to blog on Theseus, from Plutarch. It is to the founding of Athens that we owe the attempt at democracy, and quite a few other elements of our democratic republic. Plutarch cites Aristotle saying that Theseus was the first to set aside kingship to attempt a popular government. His joining the villages into the city of Athens, as we joined the fifty states into the United States, without war- as well as the saying that all mankind has an interest in the success of the adventure- reminds one of the rational founding described in Federalist 1. Plutarch also cites Homer’s catalog of ships, where Homer uses the word “people” to describe only the Athenians. Prior to Theseus, Erechtheus, the seventh king of the village Athens, is the earth-born man who makes Athens a temple to Athena there on the Acropolis. Unlike Rome, Athens is a city that aims above necessity and the virtues of war, toward the beautiful, making possible friendship, love, philanthropy, human happiness and philosophy within, or on the edges of the city. But Athens does not fall short of Rome or even Sparta in either war or money-making, defending all Greece from the Persian invasion of Xerxes, as at Marathon and Salamis. This is a paradox, perhaps, of the human condition, but by sacrificing all to strength, courage and the virtues of war, the Roman and the Spartan foundings do not lead to the greatest strength or virtue, but are outdone in the long run by Athenian liberty. Though one would not wish to face the Spartans at Thermopylae, it is especially in Athens that nature can emerge.

   Theseus himself knew Hercules, and Nestor knew Theseus. Prior to the founding of Athens, Theseus found the sword in the stone and cleared the highway of tyrants from Troezen to Athens, then freed Athens from the tribute to the Minotaur, finding his way up out of the labyrinth by the golden thread given him by Ariadne. He then turned to founding. As Plutarch writes:

Now, after the death of his father Aegeus, forming in his mind a great and wonderful design, he gathered together all the inhabitants of Attica into one town, and made them one people of one city, whereas before they lived disbursed, and were not easy to assemble upon any affair for the common interest. Nay, differences and even wars often occurred between them, which he by his persuasions appeased, going from township to township and from tribe to tribe. And those of a more private and mean condition readily embracing such good advice, to those of greater power he promised a commonwealth without monarchy, a democracy, or people’s government, in which he should only be continued as their commander in war and the, protector of their laws, all things else being equally distributed among them;- and by this means brought a part of them over to his proposal. The rest, fearing his power, which was already grown very formidable,, and knowing his courage and resolution, chose rather to be persuaded than forced into a compliance. He then dissolved all the distinct state-houses, council-halls and magistracies, and built one common state house and council hall on the site of the present upper town, and gave the name of Athens to the whole city, ordaining a common feast and sacrifice, which he called the panathenaea, or the sacrifice of all the united Athenians…Then, as he had promised, he laid down his regal power and proceeded to order a commonwealth, entering upon this great work not without advice from the gods. For having sent to consult the oracle of Delphi…

His office of foreign and domestic executive reminds one of the U. S. Presidency. And Like our statue of Liberty, his proclamation inviting all strangers to come and share equal privileges with the natives, was “Come hither all you people,” setting up a commonwealth “for all nations.” And he was the first that divided the commonwealth into three distinct ranks, the noblemen, the husbandmen and the artificers, in an “exact equality” in which the nobles, holding the magistracies, teach and dispense the laws, excelling in honor, while the husbanders, of “nature’s riches from expense,” excel in wealth, and the craftsmen in numbers. For the first time, the craftsmen are included in the regime, and this is part of why it is so much fun when the craftsmen in A Midsummer Night’s Dream produce a play for the wedding of Theseus.

   I would cherish an Ox coin from the coinage of Theseus, at Athens perhaps around 1100 B.C. This stuff is quite real, and may be the origins of our political liberty and a part of our constitution in the broader sense of the word. NPR was just talking about the later Coin with a leaping dolphin, from the story of Arion in Herodotus, and Athens also had an owl coin, probable because Athena has to do with wisdom.

   Theseus had a little trouble with eros, as that Fairy Queen led him all about, through a series of loves that lead him, when age fifty, to abduct the Helen of Sparta, or Lacedaemonia, before she was even married or marriageable (and long before Lycurgus legislated the Sparta of the time of Socrates, famous for her laws). Theseus might have taken the virginity of Helen, but it is likely that he stashed Helen with his mother to wait for her to grow older. This caused him to lose his office and be exiled at the end of his career, as her relatives attacked Theseus to get her back. Shakespeare shows the correction of the flaw of the Fairy Queen, and her giving up the changeling child so that reason and love might keep better company. The Amazon event and Hippolyta occurs while Theseus is president at Athens and his constitution is being established. Nalin Ranasinghe, in an essay in a recent St. John’s Review, suggests that Shakespeare has replaced the Amazon invasion that occurred on the eve of his wedding to Hippolyta, avoiding his tragic marriage to Phaedra shown in Euripides’ Hippolytus.

   Hence, Theseus- in including the people and setting aside kingship, may be the greatest of all founders, and the one who most reminds of Jefferson and Washington together. In light of their legacy as statesmen and legislators, Caesar does not even compare to these Americans, though one might look to Brutus the founder of the Roman republic. Neither Alexander nor Romulus- one might easily argue- participate so fully in the royal nature, phronesis, or the fullness of the intellect. Trying to write now on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I find him there in Plutarch, and am reminded of Barack and of the present difficulties in America, and the tradition we are faced with the possibility of bringing to an end should we forget the difference between Liberty and Tyranny.


Surveillance Legislation

Say, why do we not suggest to our legislators a new law giving the FBI and the police the powers to set prostitutes onto the citizens to get the suspicious individuals to fall in love. Then we could be as sure as possible that these odd-balls are not bad actors. And if these targets have a friend, we could give the prostitutes the powers to also “date” the friend, get the two accusing one another, and thereby, for every ten we target, we ought catch at least one spy or mobster? How many such have been missed by our failure to do so?

And, in section 2 of such a law, we could give the CIA power to hire certain professors, so these are wearing two hats, as it were, and are then able to watch the development of the young plants in their crucial phases, looking for any sign of terrorist tendencies, nascent communism or white supremacist? These are fairly inexpensive measures, and one just cannot be too sure now-a-days. We will further authorize any measures at all, from our book on princes, in order to protect these deeds of our intelligence agents from being considered as crimes or in any way brought to light.

Then in section 3 of such a law, we will forbid any looking into these measures if anyone ever figures out what their government has been doing, say, like Snowden with his documents, we will authorizes the agencies to chase them all the way to Moscow to preserve our government secrets and secret methods. Let us, in fact, pass this whole law in secret, and authorize the threatening of anyone who even thinks, say, of having Congress call FBI agents to tell the truth at hearings, or other such measures mortally dangerous to democracy.

You see, just because I am in the CLC does not mean I could not be a legislator in this political climate.

Conversations With Famous Persons III: Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell is of course one of the most prominent students of the great Carl Jung. He wrote a book on the archetype of the hero, a book that did quite well. Once, my philosophy teacher asked me, “what is a hero?” I am still working on that question to this day, so I will soon be spending more time with Mr. Campbell.

One night, Mr. Campbell gave a wonder-filled lecture at the Fountain Street Church in downtown Grand Rapids, near to my home there on Oak street, nestled between the bells of three churches. I had been reading quite a bit of Jung, even while discovering Socrates and philosophy. We had taken up the question of natural right, or what is just by nature, as distinct from what is legal. There are of course, unjust laws, and the just by nature is our way of saying what it is that guides the legislators when they are making laws, trying to avoid making unjust laws, or laws with implications that result in injustice. The question is of course very difficult. But it is simply self contradictory to say that right and wrong are only matters of opinion with no truth behind. Everyone believes that some are unjust, so that to be human is to have opinions about justice and injustice that one believes are true. Again, at its root, all modern thought is self contradictory. It is especially so when these imply that it is unjust to believe in justice.

Back to Joseph Campbell. After the lecture, when all the questions were asked, and everyone had gone home, I was honored to be taken by Mr. Campbell into the room behind the altar, as he packed up his papers, preparing to leave. I had of course been wondering how my new discovery of natural right would interface with the thought of Jung.

There are in Jung two different thoughts on the fundamental philosophic things, and I wonder if he ever thought it out. On one hand, his thought and all of analytic psychology are based on the assumption that wholeness is good. To integrate the archetypes is good for us, or healthy for the soul, while if we ignore these things and the things of self knowledge, ignore the unconscious, never throw a penny in the fountain, this is not healthy for the soul. First, to integrate the shadow, we cease faction with the shadows outside and admit to ourselves the parts of our nature and character that we do not admire. In Christianity, this is penance, and is guided by the law. It is the seeing of the splinter in one’s own eye.

The integration of the shadow opens the way to romantic love, and the drama of the hero begins. Jung calls this enterprise the integration of the anima or soul, as in “Your my soul, and my inspiration,” from the popular song. The anima turns out to be a mediator toward the archetypes and the highest enterprise of their integration, the things concerning what Jung calls the archetype of the “self,” meaning our true selves. This is the child and the wise old man.

In the room behind the altar, Mr. Campbell, after quite some argument, finally assented to the idea that if wholeness is the human good or the good for man, there must be an objective basis to ethics. Jung calls himself a “subjectivist,” following Kant, as though the archetypes are categories that account for the similarity and meaning of the many myths. I suppose I had confused the ego as subject with the self as subject, in trying to understand German subjectivism.

Another part of the thought of Jung is that wholeness, and even God, is a coincidence of opposites, both good and evil, so that again, natural right will slip away. The just and unjust, the argument suggests, will be united in a whole that is “beyond good and evil.” This is not to be taken lightly, even by us ethical objectivists. An impenetrable mystery of the Bible will always be that God made that rebellious angel, allows all this unbelievable stuff to occur, and even “gave into the hearts” of those ten kings, “to do his mind and to do one mind and to give their kingdom to the beast, until the sayings of God are made complete” (Revelation 17:17).

The hero participates in all things human, and in order to overcome the villain, must conquer this within himself. It may be a lesser achievement if he conquers this outside himself, and like Arthur, is extinguished with his opposite Mordred.

In our psychology, the new Socratic psychology, we hold that justice and virtue are the health of the soul, while injustice and faction are the illness and disease of the soul, at least at this level. The Socratic discussion of faction in the first book of Plato’s Republic comes to mind.

In addition, there is a hierarchy of the parts of the soul and the priorities, a hierarchy that is by nature or natural. When we subject what is higher, like wisdom, to what is lower, like bodily pleasure or money, we disrupt the parts of our own soul, leaving a discord rather than a harmony. Injustice, like stealing, is usually a result of inflamed desire, so that the desire for money is held by us in action to be more important than our concern for others, or to love God and our neighbor. To steal from me is then basically to say that your having that 20$ for dope is more important to you than my friendship, or my right to property, etc. There are not, in this philosophy, universal laws that are always literally true: One might steal medicine from a stingy doctor to save a dying child. It is not that the Mosaic prohibition is wrong, but it is a matter of priorities. All ethics, in choice, is a matter of priorities, and these priorities have a basis in an objective natural hierarchy. One should, if there is time, find another way, but if it comes down to it, one must choose the life of the child over the universal law, and hope he grows up to become a good kid who helps others, rather than a bad kid who hurts others.

The ends of wealth, honor and wisdom correspond to the three parts of the soul, and these to the three parts of the polity: the money-makers, the noble, and the wise. The benefit of Socratic psychology is that the archetype at the root of politics is the nature of the soul. It is in order to see justice in the soul that Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, undertakes the attempt to found a city in speech.

Aristotle describes three right regimes and three perversions of these. In the right regimes, the part that is the ruling element aims at the common good, while in the bad forms, the ruling element aims at its own apparent self interest, at the expense of the other classes, and of the whole city. So tyranny is the worst, while genuine Kingship, which is very rare, and genuine aristocracy, which is also rare though not unknown in history (as in the Knights of the Round table) are the best forms of constitution. It is not impossible, too, for the few rich to rule, as they are the able administrators, especially if these are educated by the wise and honor those truly noble. We have what Aristotle, in his politics, calls polity or politea, a constitution which, devised wisely, throws the few rich and the many poor who vote into a legislature, where powers are balanced, to hash out the common good in each instance, so that neither class is fleeced.

To conclude, then, when Joseph Campbell admitted that the thought of Jung- and indeed the entire aim of psychology at the knowledge and cultivation of the health of the soul- implies an objective ethics and natural right, modern psychology finally escaped the subjectivism of German philosophy and the ethical relativism that once seemed to be the only conclusion to be drawn from the many cultures and the undesirableness of the absolutist claims of opinions that had pretended to be objective knowledge. Rather than imply that there is no truth, the falsity of the absolutism of medieval tradition requires that there be a truth, and that opinion can be improved by the pursuit of knowledge. The possibility of mistakes implies that there is truth. The unhealthiness of faction and the possibility of the health of the soul implies that there is ethical truth, and these are the philosophical bases of psychology.