Once Upon a Gaze: On a missing column at the Acropolis of Athens
Once back in December, I cast a gaze upon the Acropolis of Athens. It is important to specify this ‘once’ since it was the multiple-th time I was gazing at this rocky outcrop in the plain of Attica. I live in Athens and I have the modest privilege of standing in awe in front of the hill’s monuments several times within a month. Every gaze of mine may be always a new one but its freshness is always informed by my previous gazes and conditioned by the gazes I routinely imagine that I cast upon the hill. So, this gaze of ‘once’ was not a stand-alone instance and portraying it as such is a rather contrived representation of its intertwined nature. There is no ‘naked’ gazing stripped away from surrounding circumstances, perished events and imagined possibilities. At each given point in time, all experienced or probable gazes of ours assemble into a streamlined gaze to reveal novel thoughts that we never afforded to make; new interpretations that we never bothered to attempt. We become wiser following each gaze (or, in unfortunate circumstances, more baffled) since each individual instance of ‘gazing’ is a unique actual occasion; a new ‘becoming’ in a pure Whiteheadian sense.
Every time we gaze upon something then, we cognitively appraise contextual cues and infuse those with our affective apprehension. In turn, this amalgam reconfigures our certainties; aggravates our uncertainties; reorients our moral compass. This entanglement of calculative reflection and visceral jolts continuously recalibrates our intellect. Thus, we are able to see the Acropolis (or the Eiffel Tower; the Big Ben; or, the Statue of Liberty) from a new vantage point each time. Past experiences and present wisdom coalesce and wake us up to a new, more informed self: “Hey, onlooker! Your previous gazes upon the Acropolis were wrong!”, I can almost hear wise History whispering to my ears; a necessary ‘wrong’ of functional utility though, I would add as an honest excuse (and not as a convenient alibi).
Following this gaze of mine ‘once’ back in December, I instinctively did not see but rather chose to visualize the Acropolis at the peak of its glory almost 25 centuries ago. At that time, the Parthenon had been eventually constructed (it took roughly a good old eight years to do so) and it is very likely that its final appearance and shape influenced Athenian philosophers’ understanding of reality and inspired them in various ways. The Parthenon was there at last, dominating the new skyline of the city; visible and admired while signposting political might and intellectual achievement to the city-state’s citizens. Its colorful majesty and startling Pentelic marble most likely energized Athenian scholars to excel; its imposing structure over the city might have galvanized their spirit even further. It was part of the urban fabric that informed Athenian philosophers’ scholarly work and perhaps boosted their intellectual confidence at the unprecedented levels we now know and learn at school. One may speculate about the magnitude and orientation of this ‘informing’ and ‘inspiration’ in all sorts of ways. However, arguably, one can hardly deny that the Parthenon’s obvious presence, its apparent status, its immediately visible location must have had a lasting impact upon the collective consciousness and psyche of the ancient Athenian society. The rock and its monuments still have that impact among present-day Athenians so, its early emergence back then must have been truly performative.
Then, I fell out of my dream and I had only one option: to see the contemporary Acropolis as my main cognitive trigger. Currently, the Acropolis hill is the site of, quite probably, the world’s most sophisticated archaeological work. It is protected and curated by various national and international organizations, and scientists and professionals working on its premises such as archaeologists, sculptors, restoration architects, material scientists, lighting designers or classicists rank among the highest acclaimed scholars and practitioners in their respective fields. Why do those people consume so much energy to preserve a relic or understand its historical trajectory? What makes this hill so unique? Notwithstanding their long-awaited, upcoming Instagram moment, why do all those tourists assemble under the scorching Athenian heat?
After all, as one of those tourists might argue, the Acropolis monuments are simply one more set of relics from antiquity with the Mediterranean basin being punctuated with hundreds of such monuments. In fact, many of the latter monuments are arguably in a much better shape than the ones on the Acropolis. Their columns still stand, their pedestals’ curvature is still in a decent shape and, in some cases, even the roof is still there e.g. it is so in the nearby Temple of Hephaestus in Athens (the best-preserved temple in Greece that is in walking distance and visible from the Acropolis). So, why do all these people flock to see, photoshoot, or do research on this particular set of monuments (namely the Parthenon, the Erectheon, the Propylaea and the Temple of Athena Nike) that appear destroyed, tarnished and, often, with a modern scaffolding encircling them in the hope of rescue and restoration?
For example, several of the Parthenon column drums and most parts of its frieze are missing; its pediment is being scarred and destroyed from looting, war, explosions, or invasions. In visible, tangible terms, all the monuments of the Acropolis are a fading ghost of their prior, grandiose self. Something is obviously missing; either be it the Erectheon’s roof or part of the Propylaea’s portico. Instagram and Facebook aside, there must be a more fundamental answer to the primordial push of modern visitors or romantic dilettantes of the 18th century to climb the steep slopes of the Acropolis hill even in the midst of a promising August. Why should they bother when there is always the envious alternative of hitting the Athenian beaches nearby or paying a visit to the glorious Greek islands a few miles away?
I think I know the answer; not with a sense of Newtonian certitude but with a sense of Platonic idealization. The answer lies in the ontology of Acropolis; what once was and what currently is; what it used to be and how it became. Its relic status; its remaining mereology reveals its signification. Those scars, its missing parts is what largely makes the Acropolis such an attractive monument; such a monumental symbol of Western civilization. All those ‘non-parts’ denote the struggles of Athens against invading forces and the temporary yet crucial survival of the Classical civilization. They are reminiscent of the destructive passage of different cultures and religions from this ancient, once pagan city and the resultant decline of the Greek world. They signify the persistent meaningfulness of Athenian life for Western culture through identity transition and morphing. The Acropolis’ structural wounds exemplified in the absence of its structural parts inform us about ‘others’, too. For example, what is missing reflects the disregard of various groups of people or authorities for the legacy of the Classical world; their carelessness, backwardism, neglect, ambivalence, or cultural insensitivity. The voids that act as the background of my gaze and of my reflection upon the contemporary Acropolis reveal the admiration, arrogance, or ignorance of the passerby, invaders, looters, appropriators, conquerors or oppressors; their genuine intentions or their ethically dubious motivations.
The missing colonnade, the chiseled frieze, the crumbled parts of the pediment epitomize the historical trajectory of the Greek civilization through the dualisms of war and peace; creativity and stagnation; admiration and disrespect. The Acropolis of Athens –through its wounds and scars; through its now observable absences- is a living museum and a documentary alike. Its missing parts narrate the history of the then known world and the strife that largely shaped the form of our contemporary world. The fallen roof of the Parthenon and the destroyed western portico at the Propylaea exemplify the love that once was; the love that once performed; the love that once sprung out, induced and inspired. These voids are the necessary lacunas of History that make the rest of ‘tangible’ History appear as such to us as observers and onlookers.
Without those absences or if there was a forceful, contrived restoration in an effort to emulate the original building as much as possible, the Acropolis of Athens would have been a mockery; a visible yet meaningless amusement park signifying nothing that matters to human consciousness. It would project verisimilitude but not truth. Fortunately, there is no such intention and the restoration work on the hill sets the global scene for the state-of-the-art in the field of archaeology. Otherwise, a blind emulation; an inauthentic repetition that might be expected by an Instagram-driven tourist would deprive Athens of its essence, of its course, of its historical peaks and valleys. What does not exist; what does not appear; what is not visible on the hill projects the truthfulness, invokes the authenticity, underlines the ontological continuity of the city in all its guises, wrongdoings and misshapen. I love Athens for what its scars and absences signify to the rest of the world.
Why are these remarks of absence and presence so important to us, mere mortals who do not study the Parthenon? Well, the same remarks also happen to apply to this very cherished event called ‘life’. According to Plato’s Symposium (specifically according to Diotima in her talk with Socrates therein), Eros –not as sexuality but as life affirmation- is empty and meaningless without a concomitant lack of something important; without a requisite poverty; without an absence and a necessity (conceived as ‘Penia’ by Plato i.e., the resourceful mother of Eros). Without its mother; without this lack of something, Eros is unable to induce and enact and Eros’s magic spell upon the world cannot exist. The required resource, the yearnful passage, the desirable way out (i.e., Plato’s paternal ‘Poros’; the father of Eros) is futile and life affirmation cannot ensue through a mere presence; through Poros alone. The absence of something; an experienced or impending Penia co-defines us and, in the most fortunate circumstances, it motivates us to surpass it; it is not nothing.
Of course, the current crumbled status of the Acropolis may be seen by some as merely an indifferent Penia, an absence of something important such as its missing colonnade parts. In turn, based on their visual sense and own aesthetic criteria, a visitor there may simply not like it nor find any meaning to its relic-ish status. Penia is portayed by Plato as poor, without shoes and shriveled i.e., more or less, how the Acropolis monuments look like when simply ‘seen’ and not ‘felt’ or when compared to their former glory that ‘once’ was. Thus, indeed, someone may neither like the observed Penia on the Acropolis nor be convinced of its worth; even more so when having this isolated, detached ‘once’, an idealized image of Parthenon in their mind. Arguably, aesthetics is conditioned by our expectations and beauty is a relational construct.
Irrespectively of one’s axiological remarks and aesthetic predispositions though, a more tactile approach would reveal that both the ‘beings’ and the ‘non-beings’ that are equally evident on the Acropolis variably matter. Every ‘once’; every ‘never’; every ‘forever’ inscribed or implied upon the hill culminates in the Western historiography we look upon as tourists or study as scholars. Together, the still standing and the missing columns alike inspire, motivate, demonstrate, attract (or repulse some); they ‘do’ and ‘perform’. Comparing and contrasting the Acropolis as it might have been, should be, currently is or might further become enables the conceiving of possibilities, the realization of an otherwise unthought-of status, the enactment of desirable choices. It facilitates the emergence of unanticipated inspiration and affords variable degrees of eye-opening illuminations in relation to a monument that co-shaped the fate of the Western world.
It is only this penetrative, intertemporal gaze of ours upon the being/non-being couplet that provides a holistic understanding of the Acropolis; the Colosseum; the Stonehenge as they ‘once’ were. It is only that couplet that explains the role of human agency in the making and unmaking of the monuments and their trajectory. The remaining parts are exactly that i.e., ‘remaining’ and would mean nothing as meaningful without their ravished, fallen, looted, and ravaged or carefully restored counterparts. It is the erotic couplet of what ‘there is’ (Poros) and what ‘there isn’t’ (Penia), which reminds us that we are humans. We are eternally blessed (or cursed) with the aforementioned magic spell of Eros and its parents. Humans and their achievements or their wrongdoings are the fatal offsprings of Empedoclean strife and love. How fitting then is the fact that drama made its first appearance in the Dionysus Theater at the southern slopes of the Acropolis?
It is not very flattering to express this in a public medium but I get emotional every time I think about the geographical proximity between the ravaged Parthenon and the place where tragedy was first performed. I am excited every time I make this inevitable juxtaposition and conceptualize the seamless linkage between the temple at the apogee of intellectual achievement in Classical Greece and the Theater of Dionysus beneath the rock of the Acropolis where Western drama was born. “This proximity is no chance at all”, wise History whispers again to my ears. Every time I dream of the intact, completed, ancient Acropolis and every time I cast my contemporary gaze upon the ravaged, contemporary remnants of it; every time I reflect on its parts that ‘remained’, history passes vividly through my very eyes as a drama film on a screen. Its opacity is no more.
At this stage, please allow me a rather personal remark. I like many things related to the Acropolis. For example, I adore the Acroterion; an exquisite ornament that adorned the pediment of the Parthenon and is now magnificently exhibited at the Acropolis Museum. However, my favorite thing is a no-thing; it is a gap. My favorite absence on the Acropolis is a missing column at the southern colonnade of the Parthenon. It takes me back to 1687 when a huge explosion -instigated by the Venetians bombarding the hill and due to Ottomans’ use of the Parthenon as warehouse for gunpowder – destroyed much of the old-standing building that, until that time, was admirably kept in a rather solid state. This missing column makes history as translucent as possible and offers a remarkable clarity that cannot be attained otherwise. What and who caused the demolition of the Parthenon? Venetian disregard or Ottoman naiveté? Who should be blamed? Humean causality feels rather helpless in such circumstances yet, through such entanglements, the film on the screen paradoxically becomes even less opaque.
I can almost smell the ubiquitous blood, the quarrels, the consensus and the truce after the destruction of the southern colonnade and the fall of the roof inflicted by the 17th century explosion. Every time I see such gaps in history, such missing parts in a monument or such absences in the course of events, I am transposed to the eras where all similar wounds were created or healed. I time-travel to the 16th and 17th centuries and I observe the uplifting spirit of the Renaissance’s towering natural philosophers. I gaze upon them at the very moment they had their first reading of the works of Gorgias and Parmenides; I see Kepler being baffled by those Pre-Socratics’ opposition on the being/non-being couplet; I see Copernicus being tormented by his perceived inability to reconcile their opposing tensions. How can you appropriate an absence; that, which does not exist? And then again, through Kepler’s and Copernicus’ bewilderment upon Gorgias’ dictums on non-being, I see Sartre and Heidegger, too. I see the invisible thread that connects ancient Greek tragedy, German nihilists, modern art and French existential philosophers; I sense the Western civilization in its entirety and its mesmerizing ontology.
Through the battered Colosseum, I visualize the painful compromises of the Roman rulers in an effort to maintain the ontological consistency of an empire; to preempt a non-being. Through the fallen walls of Constantinople, I can somehow sense the dispirited citizens of Byzantium when they realized that their choices and priorities amalgamated into fatalism and collapse. Through the spatial emptiness; or, better, the ample space dedicated to a pendulum in the Panthéon, I almost feel the creative agony of Enlightenment figures when they chose to firmly base their brute convictions on Aristotelian empiricism. Western history is so entangled; so intertwined; so masterfully connected through its absences. It would then be an epistemological fallacy of History -as a science- to focus only on what there is.
Every time I see the missing column drums from the southern Parthenon colonnade then -the ones that archaeologists so lovingly seek to rescue and restitute- I see how Aristotle’s Lyceum and Plato’s Academy connect with Newton’s apple tree and Wittgenstein’s struggling certainty. I rejoice when I see that the Epicurean Kipos still blooms every time a British poet or a German philosopher, like modern-day versions of a Spartan warrior, confront the inevitability of death with unparalleled courage. Every time I imagine the continuity and flux between the Caryatids’ hair and the Erechtheum’s pedestal, I see Heraclitian flow being poured in Whitehead’s head. Every time I turn my gaze upon the Pnyx Hill west of the Acropolis, I conceive how Aristotelian phronesis lent itself to American pragmatism and modern-day democracy. Every time I climb the Areopagus hill just below the monumental entrance to the Acropolis, I remember how Christianity came to be in Europe.
Overall, every time I see the ravaged Acropolis and all those absences on it, the motivations, intentionality, and concerns that remain hidden in the unsung parts of history are reified as marble statues; they march as a logical sequence of events. I see how the Φ in the title became F but should read as V; how Epicurus chose the bravest disenchantment of all; why St Paul was mocked by the Athenians. I see the liminal periods when Ἀθῆναι became Athenae; Londinium became London and Paris and then, New York became our new, beautiful gravitational centers. Through the gaps in Western history; through the fallen castles, the defeated armies, the destroyed palazzos and the lifeless corpses in Europe’s battlegrounds, I see the minutiae and flow that galvanized the Western civilization that we so much cherish and admire. Strife is the father of all; said Heraclitus and, with this in mind, I make a genuine attempt to visualize the future as more promising and peaceful than ever before (albeit with a reserved optimism I must admit).
Am I disillusioned or quasi-paranoid seeing all those things through a missing column (let alone having History whispering to me)? Perhaps. But, without the missing column and the drama that comes with it, these events that I purportedly see might not exist or, at least, they would certainly not appear as such. If the missing column had always been intact or had never been missed then, History would have been fundamentally different irrespective of anyone’s disillusioned gaze upon it. Instead, the current absence of the column has a profoundly fecund presence. Through this omnipresent consequentiality, the missing column does not denote a mere Penia; an ‘indifferent relic’ as a beach-loving tourist or island hopper might comment while drinking his ouzo in Mykonos. Instead, such a ubiquitous absence induces reflection and action; it performs variably ranging from this likely disillusionment of mine herein up to a heated debate between Athens and the trustees at Bloomsbury over sovereign rights upon some beautifully carved marbles. Thus, this missing column has to be something more than a mere gap. It must not be simply an infrastructural deficiency of an old relic as our beloved ‘Epicurean’ tourist in the idyllic isle of the Cyclades might yet again imply.
At that very moment of my December gaze, I realized that the missing column denotes something more; that the remaining Acropolis emerges not merely as an eternal architectural symbol or as a tourist attraction but as the very theater of human agency. At that moment (which is never a mere moment!), I realized that history is an evolving constant in the same way that our psyche is. The appearance and form of human nature changes through strife and love; we wrinkle, we shrink, we decline and, occasionally, we appear to be more beautiful, too. Much like what the Acropolis does for some centuries now. We are not immune to the equivalents of Venetian bombardment nor to Ottomans’ ill-informed priorities. Yet, our ontological core as humans remains intact and signifies something important and worth-nourishing despite the changes and absences ensued at the periphery.
As soon as I gaze upon this missing Parthenon column then, I am reminded of the human condition and the tragedy associated with our eventual fate; hoping that the tears we shed when we get emotional will keep nurturing a new, even more fruitful gaze upon each one’s own Acropolis next time. Confident as I am that Eros will collectively prevail and death -as the ultimate absence- will cast its gaze upon us only once; that stand-alone, grand ‘once’ that is not the intertwined, plural ‘once’ of mine noted in the first paragraph. Rather, it is the singular, ecumenical ‘once’ we are all endowed with: Our fate towards demise.
Nevertheless, this lacuna of death and its resultant oblivion did not lead the Athenians who built the Parthenon into despair and discouragement. They did not perceive a death; an absence; a lacuna; a missing column as a monovalent void that does not warrant our extra care, attention and effort. Telos (the etymological root of teleology) is a polyvalent word that means both ‘the end’ and ‘final purpose’. Telos-as-the-end urged the Greeks to find a telos-as-purpose: to circumvent and confront the oblivion that is ensued. It energized them to reflect upon the circular inescapability from our collective fate with optimism; it induced them to create, explain and improve human affairs beyond mysticism, fatalism and superstition; to choreograph their most beautiful conceptualization out of a courageous gaze upon death: the notion of Eros, the offspring of Penia and Poros as the personification of life affirmation; as the ‘movement’ of life itself.
Eros is an ingenious metaphor for the celebration of life. ‘Celebrating’ does not mean an empty orientation towards fun, enjoyment, and pleasure. It also means honoring life beyond mere hedonism. For Greeks, and as schematized by Plato, Eros acted as an invisible, powerful impulse; as a moral duty. Not in any sense of religious ethicality (that would drive Epicurus mad) but as an ethical calling to overcome the oblivion and sorrow resulting from the inevitability of death. For example, overcoming oblivion is achieved through monumental architecture, scientific work, artistic mastery and, overall, creative novelty that lasts long after one dies. Easing the pain of sorrow is also achieved through more mundane pursuits such as loving, dancing and eating together under the sun following a dive in the Aegean Sea. Well, I sounded too judgmental before but, as it seems, the hedonistic tourist in Mykonos often demonstrates a remarkable wisdom in relation to life’s priorities!
Notwithstanding the value of holiday-making though, Eros should not be equated with an ill-defined Epicureanism. Rather, it is about an Apollonian-cum-Dionysian ethos coalescing as one coherent stance in life; the distinct Greek ethos ever since the Pre-Socratics. Let us not forget that drama comprises both tragedy and comedy; reality comprises the iteration between strife and love. Those wonderful dualisms still act as the archetype upon which most philosophical reflection and artistic creation is based. This dual identity of Eros then –its resourceful Penia and its wholesome Poros- implies that creative cheerfulness is born out of a deep grief. Eros is first and foremost a prudent liberation, not debauchery. It is the primordial push that ‘once’ enacted the beautiful, un-touristy column that is now missing and I systematically cast my gaze upon.
This missing column on the Acropolis of Athεns then represents the human condition; the inescapable circle of life and death. When seen through the eyes of the master architect Pheidias who conceived it, this column was the creative, erotic by-product of Empedoclean love. Then, through Heraclitean strife and an explosion in 1687, its ravaged remaining parts became the indifferent Penia in the eyes of the laid-back tourist in Mykonos. Eventually, following my gaze ‘once’ back in December, the charming residue of a few column drums (or, more precisely, the absence of others) transitioned into my own ontogenetic Poros i.e., this story that seems to be about a missing column at the Acropolis oφ Athεns. This Epoché article and every similar effort then, are written in a hope of confronting the inescapable through creativity and courage; combating my own oblivion and sorrow. After all, erotically speaking, this is what we ought to do; this is the only thing left in us to do i.e., to celebrate life in all its glory and misshapen; to honor our beautiful drama in each one’s own theater called life. There is not too much or anything else we can do before we return our gaze to the great Nothingness ‘once’ and ‘for all’.