Without men, no culture, certainly; but equally, and more significantly, without culture, no men.”1 It is no secret that culture and the participation in cultural practices contribute a great deal to human life. In fact, Homo sapiensstands alone as the sole species on earth that has developed complex mythic and spiritual beliefs, social structures, means of artistic expression, as well as countless other facets of culture that shape how we think and act. For years, anthropologists have sought to understand the reasons why humans behave the way they do. How and why did culture develop? Why is it that culture marks off Homo sapiens as a species?
What accounts for humans’ singularity cannot be explained simply. Anyone who has sought after a particular genetic mutation or discovery that suddenly allowed one of our prehistoric ancestors to develop art or religion or social organization will never find it. Humans are complex. If our human bodies function as a result of a complex system of biological factors, why can’t we think of human behavior as functioning the same way? Why would human behavior be so uncomplicated in comparison to the complexity of physical humanity, and on what basis could we claim that anything in human existence is separate from what it is to be physically human? Human behavior and the cultural practices responsible for our behavior need to be understood as functions of the physical nervous system, as something that is a direct result of anatomy and anatomical function.
Over thousands of years of human evolutionary development, qualitative and quantitative changes in human anatomy, particularly in the brain, gave our species the physical and mental capacities to create and participate in cultural practices. In due time human existence came to necessitate these cultural practices as compensation for factors in human brain function. Our brain has an inherent need for symbolism since Homo sapiens do not have instincts that instruct behavior like other animals do. We need instructions from an outside source. This is where culture comes into play; it provides the necessary symbolism artificially. Throughout human evolution, our species has come to rely upon these cultural sources of symbolism to allow us to live in the world in the same way we rely on our physical bodies. Because of this, human culture can be understood as an evolutionary catapult as much as natural selection can. When understood in conjunction, these two factors, natural and cultural selection, account for the human species as we know it today.
To understand clearly how human brain function affects the cultural practices we participate in we will be looking at one of the most widely studied cultures of all time: Classical Greece. Although scholars have written extensively on the mythology, political power, and great artistic achievements of Classical Greece, particularly Athens, here we will be examining these aspects of cultural in fifth century B.C. Greece through a bio-evolutionary lens. Like all human cultures, the culture of Classical Greece can be understood as a result of ways of thinking that came about over thousands of years of physical evolutionary change, without which the great cultural achievements of our species would never have been attained.
The Puzzle of Incompleteness
The word ‘culture’ means different things to different people. For our purposes, we will be using the word as it is defined by anthropologist Clifford Geertz. According to Geertz, culture is a “set of control mechanisms… for governing behavior.”2 Culture influences what we do and how we do it. We hold certain beliefs, maybe a belief in God or a belief that democracy is the best form of government, based on the culture in which we live, and it is assumed that if we lived within a different culture than our own, we would have different beliefs than we presently do. This is no accident. Our species is physiologically incapable of organizing our thoughts or actions independent of culture as a result of hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary development.
Throughout our evolutionary history, the human species has become dependent on our culture to fill in what is missing from our natural, biological tendencies. This theory of ‘cultural evolution’ is described most notably by Geertz, though it has gained acceptance by many anthropologists in recent decades. The theory suggests that as Homo sapiens evolved biologically to the point of having gained the cognitive capacity of modern humans, cultural elements had as much of an effect on our species’ development as natural selection did. In other words, natural selection was not the only force at play in the evolution of the human species but instead worked alongside biological development to produce humankind as we know it today. In the process, however, human beings became incomplete, meaning that there is something intrinsically lacking in the human species. The theory of cultural evolution claims that at some point during the evolution of Homo sapiens, the species lost nearly all of its instinctive survival traits, yet at the same time gained the mental and physical abilities to develop culture and language. These elements of culture completed the human species, filling in the gaps physiological development left behind and allowing humans to thrive in the world without the natural means of survival possessed by other species. For instance, Homo sapiens, unlike other species, do not have sharp teeth to kill other animals for food or protect ourselves from predators, so instead we must make tools and weapons to aid our bodies. In the same way, humans do not have fur or thick layers of fat to sufficiently keep warm in the winter, so we must make clothes. For humans to live in the world is it essential to participate in culture.
According to this line of thinking, we cannot conceive of man as stratified pieces of a whole, comprised separately of biological, psychological, social, and cultural components. Geertz, in The Interpretation of Cultures, gives three key pieces of evidence in support of a culturally-centered, holistic view of mankind.3 First, we must see human biological and cultural evolution as two overlapping, rather than separate, processes. This goes against the traditional Enlightenment view that man’s modern physical and mental self fully developed prior to the onset of culture. Homo sapiens’ biological ancestors, beginning with Australopithecus, started to create and alter cultural practices, which in turn altered their genetic makeup. A simple illustration of this idea is that man’s predecessors began using more and more complex tools, which required better gripping and handling. This ultimately led to the physiological development of the human hand.
Second, the majority of the biological changes that differentiate man from his progenitors took place in the central nervous system, most notably the brain. Our modern nervous system is incapable of fully directing our daily life, but rather something else, in this case language and culture, is needed to organize human thought and behavior. Without such organizational systems, humans would live in utter chaos. It would be nearly impossible for humans to know how to make shelter, locate food, or coordinate social groups based off of instinctual thinking and behaviors alone, since, unlike other species, humans do not have such instincts.
Lastly, human beings have so much to learn before an individual is capable of functioning at all. Unlike other animals who are born with the knowledge of how to live and act in order to successfully grow to maturity and pass on their genes to the next generation, humans must learn how. What is interesting still is that not only must human beings learn the basic tools of survival, it can be inferred that in the process of human evolution and cultural selection those best at learning the cultural practices needed to survive had an advantage over those who were less capable. For example, if a mother verbally instructs her child not to eat of a poisonous plant, and the child understands, he will likely be able to grow to adulthood and reproduce. By contrast, a child who is unable to fully understand and utilize language runs the risk of eating from the poisonous plant and suffering a premature death. In other words, it is both necessary for survival and advantageous evolutionarily for a human being to participate in culture.
The modern human brain and mind (the former physical while the latter non-material) are essential for the acquisition of culture. At a certain point in human evolution, despite man’s diaspora across the globe, the development of the brain slowed down to the point that every modern human being had, more or less, the same brain, anatomically and cognitively speaking. Despite some obvious variation, humans were already in the process of developing many cultural practices and would continue to do so. This is not to say that prior to the slowing down of the advancement of the human brain culture was not developing, or that it took a distinguishable anatomical change to get the cultural ball rolling. On the contrary, as far back in man’s lineage as Australopithecus, some elements of culture were beginning to form; some, but not all. Australopithecus made simple tools and organized hunting parties, yet he could not use language, form religious cults, or create works of art. With this, it becomes evident that human culture could not have simply begun its development after man had reached his present physiological form. Rather, human culture must have developed gradually, beginning as early as 200,000 years ago, before Homo sapiens even existed, and before the modern human brain was fully developed.
It can, therefore, be said that human cultural development played a significant role in human biological development. During the most recent stages of human evolution, man’s physical body was changing as a result of natural selection as well as cultural selection. Not only did cultural development begin prior to these stages of organic development, the two processes seem to have gone hand in hand. As tool production and manual dexterity became a premium for human survival, selective forces shifted towards those with larger forebrains and an overall more highly developed nervous system so that future generations would be better able to make and use tools. At the same time this was going on, greater social organization, communication skills, and moral regulation were budding thanks to increased cognitive abilities in human populations. One can conclude that both of these developments were essentially interrelated: without a more highly evolved nervous system, culture could not develop to the extent that it did, and vice versa.
Anthropologists and neuroscientists alike have sought to understand whether the changes that took place in the human brain that separates him from other primate species is simply a quantitative one, or a qualitative one as well. There is no denying that over time, human brains saw an increase in neurons and neural connections leading to an expansion in brain size. But do numbers explain it all? Although an increase in neural networks does account for more efficient neurological function, it does not necessarily account for all of the changes in human thought and behavior that also occurred.
To understand why and exactly how this all took place, we must first examine the period of human development in which it happened. The first cultural activity attributed to fully modern humans, such as art making and body adornment, initially took place during the Upper Paleolithic period (approximately 35,000-10,000 years ago). During this time and just before, the Homo genus was going through what anthropologists call the Middle to Upper Paleolithic Transition (45,000-35,000 years ago), or simply the Transition.4 This was the period in which recognizably human skeletal structure and behavior developed. While they were becoming fully modern, Homo sapiens gained prominence over the Neanderthals, a fellow hominid species also living at this time and in relatively close proximity to humans. Society was diversifying. Neanderthals were no longer the only hominids around. “Change stimulates; homeostasis anaesthetizes.”5 In this more competitive environment, Homo sapiens separated themselves from their Neanderthal neighbors by developing new behaviors that solidified them as a group. It can be inferred that Neanderthals also attempted to distinguish themselves from Homo sapiens.
Yet Homo sapiens, due to their larger brains and more effective neural networks, were better able to develop facets of culture than the Neanderthals. For our purposes, we can compare these Neanderthal brains to the brains of humans’ closest contemporary primate relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, as many anthropologists have done in their studies.6 Like the chimpanzees and bonobos of today, Neanderthals were likely able to make and use simplistic tools, yet were easily surpassed by the culture-production of Homo sapiens. During the Transition anatomically modern humans were beginning to make different tools than their Neanderthal neighbors living nearby. These different types of tools allowed for new hunting techniques, more carefully made clothing, bead making, and other cultural practices to develop. We must keep in mind that the development of new tools, oftentimes produced using materials that had previously been unutilized, was only possible because of the cognitive advances of Homo sapiens’ brains during the Upper Paleolithic period.
In addition, humans, unlike other hominid species before them, are able to build upon the technology of others. Their ingenuity stems not only from the ability to mentally concoct and physically create these new inventions, but more significantly it stems from the human ability to pass along knowledge to others. Aside from sheer imitation, it is unlikely that Neanderthals, much like chimpanzees or bonobos, were capable of imparting knowledge to others. This implies a particular way of thinking in human populations that even Neanderthals, humans’ most recent predecessor, were incapable of.
The changes that took place during the Transition had a lot to do with the development of the human brain, but we must also take into account the human mind. Certain mental conditions, both physical and psychological, were necessary for Homo sapiens to develop more complex tools, religious beliefs, burial rituals, image-making, and many other cultural practices that began during the Upper Paleolithic.7 It is true that the material brain was shaped by millions of years of natural selection. By the time of the Upper Paleolithic, the human brain was essentially the same physical brain as the human brains of today, and thus operated almost identically. We can therefore assume that in addition to the same brain, Upper Paleolithic humans also had the same mind as modern humans. By this I mean that the non-material mental states that are a result of the neurological processes of the physical brain must have been the same in Upper Paleolithic humans as they are in the humans of today. Gerald Edelman8, a Nobel Prize-winning immunologist turned neuroscientist and philosopher of mind, believed that to effectively study human consciousness we must combine the study of the brain’s anatomy and natural selection since, he believes, consciousness is a product of the material brain. Edelman’s point, which he calls Neural Darwinism, is that consciousness evolved biologically and therefore any explanation of consciousness must be based on empirical, evolutionary evidence.
According to Edelman there are two types of consciousness: primary and higher-order consciousness. Primary consciousness is “a state of being aware of things in the world – of having mental images in the present.”9 This form of consciousness has nothing to do with an awareness of the past or future, nor does it have anything to do with any concept of contextual self. Beings with this form of consciousness are restricted to the remembered chunk of time known as the present. They can only think and operate in a particular moment in time and within their own experience. Higher-order consciousness, however, “involves recognition by a thinking subject of his or her own acts or affections.”10 In addition to primary consciousness humans also have this form of consciousness. It can easily be argued that higher-order consciousness helped shape the human species. Higher-order consciousness necessitates a personal, socially-based vantage point in space and time, something that is only possible if one can break out of the remembered present and see the world as a product of past, present, and future. This is only possible with symbolic memory, like language, which in turn is only possible due to more complex neural networks that developed in Homo sapiens during the Upper Paleolithic Transition. Higher-order consciousness, therefore, probably developed alongside fully modern language. In fact, if we follow Edelman’s line of logic, it is impossible to have one without the other.
Higher-order consciousness and the symbolism it requires help organize the otherwise chaotic existence of human beings. It is symbolism that completes the incomplete human mind. Symbols aid our thinking. Language, for example, categorizes the external and mental worlds. Without the symbolic assistance of language, as linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein11 points out, we would be unable to differentiate colors from one another, but rather see the entire color spectrum as one entity. It is only the words for ‘red,’ ‘orange,’ and ‘yellow,’ that distinguish these colors from one another. It can be said that symbols also fix meaning in space and time. By assigning a word to a thing or action in the external world, humans are able to forever understand the meaning, to break the barrier of time. In this way, the utilization of symbols, including, but not limited to, words, aids in the past and future thinking that characterizes human thought.
With this in mind we can see more clearly the distinctions between Homo sapiens and Neanderthals. It is presumed that Neanderthals did not possess higher order consciousness and were unable to utilize symbols, which explains why they could adopt some human practices but not others. Since they were confined to the remembered present, Neanderthals could not develop social distinctions based on past and future lineage, nor did their burial rituals have any deeper meaning than simply an immediate function. Higher-order consciousness is thus responsible for the development of religion, social organization, art, and many other aspects of human culture. All of these things require some sort of awareness beyond the immediate present, a mental association with another period of time.
This is not to say that other species do not experience changes in mental states; they do. Yet only humans possess higher-order consciousness and have the ability to be aware of their changing states of consciousness. Animals of all sorts experience the mental state of dreaming, for instance, but this is merely a product of the biological need for sleep. Animals sleep because proteins are produced faster during sleep, and in many cases an animal will experience dreams during their sleep. Non-human animals, though, are unable to recall and discuss their dreams like humans can since they are unable to think about the past. In this way, they are unable to relate what went on in their dreams to feelings or actions they have experienced before, nor are they able to transmit to others via language the happenings of their dreams.
Homo sapiens’ heightened awareness of changing states of consciousness and past, present, and future existence necessitates the development of symbolism. This awareness creates for humans a chaotic world in which we are all too aware of ourselves, others, time, and space. Whether through myth, art, social organization, or otherwise, humans use their highly developed neurological abilities to supplement the instinctive abilities they do not have and make sense of their complex existence. Since the onset of fully modern human neurological abilities, our capacity for past and future thinking, oral and written language, and a discernible social self have given rise to the system of symbolic control mechanisms we know as culture.
Classical Greek Culture as an Evolutionary By-Product
To better understand the link between the human brain’s evolutionary development and the cultural practices that exist as a result, we will be using the culture of Classical Greece as our case study. Greece, particularly Athens, in the fifth century B.C. was on the cutting edge of cultural development. During this time, it seemed that the universe revolved around Athens and its mythic tradition, political power, and artistic production. The Athenian Acropolis, then, stood at the center of this cultural universe – and with good reason. Greek forces had just defeated the Persian army in a nearly fifty-year-long series of wars. Not only had the Greeks prevented the largest empire the world had ever seen from expanding into Europe, they soon used this victory as fuel for the development of one of the most highly nuanced cultures in all of history. Athens, under the leadership of the prominent statesman Pericles, undertook a massive program of cultural development that included the building of new monuments, the alteration of mythic stories, the rapid expansion of influence, and the establishment of an entirely new artistic style.
Aside from the immediate historical causes, the cultural environment of Classical Athens, like all cultural programs, can be described as direct result of a symbolic system of control that stems from the biological function of the brain, one that creates the order humans need. One must recall that humans, because of the form and function of their brains, need culture to supplant what they lack for survival. At the same time, the human body, including the brain, has developed the ability to create and participate in culture. This is not to say that all cultures and cultural practices posses the same complexity as Classical Greece and its practices, since they all came about as a result of the same human brain. In fact, this point is irrelevant. The brain does not create culture, humans do. The brain only provides the ways of thinking necessary for the development of symbolism. How these methods of thought are used varies from one society to another. It just so happens that Athenians in the fifth century B.C. used their biological need to symbolically organize their world to deal with the conflict with the Persian Empire and its aftermath.
The myth, power structures, and art of Classical Athens are products of the human need for an ordered society through symbolism. Without the same scientific and anthropological evidence that we have today, it seems from their mythology that ancient Greeks understood the need for order in a chaotic world, since the idea of creating order from chaos is central to their mythology. On a most basic level, Greek mythology creates a distinction between the Greek people and the other peoples who lived in proximity to them, which helped to organize the environment they lived in. In this way, the Greeks placed themselves in a superior position to all other groups. When Greek speakers migrated to modern-day Greece, or Hellas, they encountered people who held different religious beliefs from their own. The nomadic Greeks worshiped sky gods whereas the sedentary peoples they encountered worshiped earth gods. The Greek people instantly realized the distinction between themselves and these other groups due to the human brain’s higher order consciousness; they could conceive of the concept of self, in both an individual and group sense, and could make out the differences between themselves and these other groups. As they slowly took over the region, the Greeks created myths that solidified the distinction between their group and others, depicting sky gods as the highest divine authorities and earthly divinities as bringers of evil.
Greek mythology was also devised for the purpose of creating social order in the present by drawing connections to the past. Furthermore, ancient Greeks used their ability to think in the past to develop myths that gave particular parties power in the present and the future, therefore weaving contemporary events into a larger mythic pattern. 12According to Hesiod’s Works and Days13, in which he recounts the degeneration of the “Five Ages” of mythic history, the Bronze Age came before the Age of Heroes. In reality, the heroes of Greek mythology actually began as the historical kings of the Bronze Age. After the economic collapse that signaled the end of the Bronze Age around 1200 B.C., the Greek world had no kings. In this power void nobles called pasireu took control of large estates, creating an aristocratic society out of the ashes of a monarchic one. But what claims did they have to their power? The answer lies not in history, but in mythology.
Greeks created stories to explain their Bronze Age past. The Greeks of the Iron Age felt a very strong connection to the past. They lived with the past all around them, in the form of surviving Bronze Age structures and artifacts passed down through the generations. They recognized the power held by kings of the past, and in order to gain power in the present, they claimed to be descended from these Bronze Age kings, either by blood or association. Each noble had his own story of his relation to a past king that validated his power. Over time these stories developed into a rich glorification of the past that soon became the basis of Greek mythology. If Greek mythology, including religious beliefs, is based in the past, ancient Greece can be described as a fundamentally retrospective society. According to ancient Greek rhetoric, authority in the present stems from kings of the past whose power stemmed from the gods before that. This being said, it can be inferred that the ability to think in the past is responsible for ancient Greek culture in its entirety.
The rhetoric used to solidify anti-Persian attitudes in the Classical Age was entirely retrospective, and thus required the ability to think in the past and relate it to present-day events. Like they had done with the sedentary peoples of Hellas hundreds of years before, Greeks sought a way to distinguish themselves from their Persians adversaries so as to categorize their social environment. Rather than simply demarcating one belligerent force from the other, the Greeks looked to their mythic past for ways to illustrate the differences between the Persian Empire and themselves. Human experience was rationalized by the experiences of the gods. In developing the rhetorical basis for their revamped fifth century B.C. cultural program, the Greeks utilized both their ability to make a distinction between self and non-self as well as their ability to think in the past, present, and future. They looked to their mythic past to legitimize the otherized portrayal of the Persians in the present.
Greeks began to equate Persians with those who challenged Olympian law in their mythic past, the barbarians14. Historically, barbarians were those who did not speak the same language or hold the same religious beliefs as the Greeks, those who Greeks had seen as outside of their collective self. But mythically, barbarians were the uncivilized creatures of the east, like Amazons and giants, who violated dikē, or justice. It was common practice in the Greek world to compare any enemy, particularly an eastern enemy, to mythic barbarians. According to myth, heroes, or even the gods themselves, would fight the barbarians who threatened the well-being of the Greek people. Comparisons between barbarians and the Persians were easy to see: the Persian Empire was an eastern empire that invaded Greek land hoping to wipe out the Greek way of life and the law of Zeus. At the same time, parallels between fifth century B.C. Greeks and the mythic heroes and Olympians who ousted the barbarians of myth were also being drawn.
The beliefs held by the Athenians concerning the conflict with Persia greatly affected their political structure and actions during the Classical Age. As a result of the Greeks’ conception of social self, there also existed a distinct sense of other. Greeks defined themselves by what they were not. It can be said that the political and military systems of Greece during the fifth century B.C. were aimed at preserving the distinction between Greek and Persian populations. Although in the Greek world at this time poleis, or city-states, had autonomy, Greek city-states came together to form the Delian League, a military alliance organized to maintain Greek independence from the Persian Empire, putting aside their value of autonomy for the sake of maintaining a culturally sanctioned social self.
In the Greek world one city-state could not interfere with the affairs of another. There were, however, two cases when Greek city-states could join together: religious observance and military coalition. During times of war, Greek city-states could form an alliance of military powers called a symmachia. In the fifth century B.C. a symmachia was formed as part of Greece’s defensive strategy against the threat of repeated Persian invasion. Persia had been encroaching upon Greek territory for years when, in 499 B.C., Ionian Greeks finally revolted. East Greek city-states combined forces and eventually called upon city-states from the Greek mainland for additional military aid. “Their only hope lay in joint action… and a surprising degree of unity was at first achieved.”15 This was the earliest alliance of its kind. The initial failures of the east Greeks fighting alone and the success that they achieved with support from other regions signaled the need for an official, constant military alliance, and in 478 B.C. the Delian League was formed.
What implications are there in making such an alliance, especially when considering that the Greeks considered autonomy to be one of their defining virtues? What thought process goes into the decision to form an alliance against a belligerent state? How is this line of thinking a result of basic human brain function? It seems that in the case of the Greek wars with Persia, the need to define self versus other proved more important than the preservation of autonomy. The human necessity to define one’s self, particularly one’s self in a social context, may actually be at odds with the concept of autonomy. In a situation of absolute autonomy one is completely independent of external forces. Conversely, a conception of self within the context of one’s society requires these external forces. In other words, sense of unified self is better defined without autonomous rule. Sure, the Greeks had a definitive identity within the polis, but it wasn’t until the creation of the Delian League that Greeks had a broader identity that grouped them with all members of the Greek world. This group identity is what gave the Greeks the power to defeat of the Persian Empire.
Understanding this, the Athenians exploited the human tendency to otherize in order to increase the power of their polis. In doing so, they became the most powerful polis in the Greek world. How the Greek world transformed from a collection of autonomous city-states to a near empire ruled by Athens in a matter of years speaks a lot to the Athenians’ ability to take advantage of the humans’ sense of self. “The Persians were a completely alien power in language, religion, and politics,”16 and the Athenians exploited this to the fullest. It is true that Athens was at risk for another Persian offensive following the Greek victory at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., but by taking over the League and the anti-Persian rhetoric of Greece, the Athenians were able to twist the contemporary rhetoric and have the allies fighting not for Greece, but, more specifically, for Athens herself. “The Delian League was essentially ‘Athens and the allies’ not just ‘the allies.”17
The allied members of the Delian League were completely aware of Athens’ intention of heading up the League, but they saw this not as a threat to their autonomy. The autonomy of the Greek city-states was taken for granted, and the allies were not suspicious that their autonomy was slowly being taken away. The allies saw the purpose of the League as a way to maintain their independence in two senses: to protect the autonomy of the city-states and to protect their freedom from the threat of Persian control. It was believed by Athens as well as the other allies that the Athenians were the most capable of accomplishing these goals. For this reason, Athens was invited to lead the Delian League.
This power eventually led to a quasi-Athenian Empire in the eastern Mediterranean that expanded Athenian influence far beyond just the Delian League. Athens was becoming imperialistic. They forced all League members to use Athenian coins and, in 454 B.C., moved the treasury of the Delian League from Delos, an island in the middle of the Aegean Sea, to Athens on the Greek mainland. Athens consistently took one-sixtieth of the League’s tribute for what they labeled as a tribute to Athena, when in reality, this money was used however the Athenians leaders wanted, namely to fund programs within the polis of Athens. 18 They even began establishing Athenian colonies around the Aegean world. Yet they justified all of this by providing the allies with military protection. They convinced the members of the League that above all else, their sense of self and source of identity, that which was completely opposite of the Persian self, mattered most. The loss of autonomia was the price that must be paid for the protection and maintenance of the Greek identity.
The Classical moment seems to reflect, in fact be a projection of, the sense of group solidarity… Belief in the group, in society raised to the level of an abstraction and revered as a quasi-deity, seems to have been an essential ingredient in the atmosphere of the High Classical period and its art.”19 The new social, military, and political atmosphere of the Classical Age called for a brand new movement in art, one that completely rejected old ways of thinking. As Athens was transforming into an empire in the middle of the fifth century B.C., they needed an artistic program to match their contemporary rhetoric. The goal of the art of Athens in the middle of the fifth century B.C. was to express that the successes the polis had had against the Persians was a result of who the Athenians were as a people. This of course ignores the strategy, confidence, anthropocentricism, and pure luck that went into the Greek defeat of the Persian army and the overall success of the Athenian state at this time.
The stage for this new Classical style of art was to be the Athenian Acropolis. The Acropolis, the religious mount rising up from the Athenian agora, had lain in ruin for years since it was sacked by the Persians in 480 B.C. Yet in the middle of the fifth century B.C. Athenian general and influential statesman Pericles developed a building plan for the Acropolis that included the Parthenon, a victory temple dedicated to Athena Parthenos, the chaste, warrior-like aspect of the goddess Athena. The intention of the Periclean building plan was to display a reborn Athens, one that arose from the victories against the Persians as the most powerful state it had ever been. The program’s ability to unite the people of Athens and the greater Greek world stemmed from the both the program’s overall message and its ability to provide work for Athenians and stimulate the state’s economy. The hope was that a newly formed Athenian image would be help to define this new “Golden Age.”20 The entire program exploited past and future thinking to emphasize the Athenian sense of self, one that had essentially become the identity of the entire Greek world since Athens’ sphere of influence had expanded to encompass all of the eastern Mediterranean.
The entire structure of the Parthenon was meant to assert the newly acquired Athenian power and solidified identity, especially when compared to the Persian Empire. In this way, the Parthenon was the ultimate rhetorical tool of the Classical Age. In the sculptures of the Parthenon in particular we see the attempt by Athenians to give themselves a mythic identity. Here they draw upon the precedent of their mythic past to give them an identity in the present. Nowhere on the building’s decorations is there any direct reference to contemporary Persians or Greeks. Rather, the Persians and Greeks are symbolically represented as the barbarian villains and divinely-inspired heroes, respectively, of the myths depicted in the Parthenon sculptures. Without making any reference to the Persian Empire, the Parthenon is distinctly anti-Persian, utilizing symbolism to convey the values that define a people.
The Parthenon’s ninety-two metopes present a microcosm of the cosmic theme of order versus chaos, one that seems to characterize the human experience in itself. Though each side of the rectangular monument in the Doric temple style displays a different myth, there is a common theme between each set of metopes: that divine order will always have superiority over chaos and the enemies of the gods. Among the metopes are scenes of the Centauromachy, Amazonomachy, Iliupersis (the sack of Troy), and Gigantomachy. Each of these myths depicts an eastern enemy being defeated by the Olympian gods or heroes fighting on their behalf. Centaurs, Amazons, and Giants are all creatures of chaos who threaten the order of the dominion of Zeus, while the Trojan War at this time is being interpreted as an eastern adversary fighting Greeks. “In the scenes depicting the triumph of their ancestors and their gods against the barbaric (i.e. both ‘savage’ and ‘foreign’) adversaries few Greeks would have missed an allusion to the triumph over the Persians.”21
This being stated, one can clearly see how the Greeks relied on symbolism to give definition to their group identity as well as that of the Persian Empire. The head sculptor Pheidias designed the Parthenon metopes fully aware that the Athenian audience would see themselves as the heroes of the myths depicted in the Parthenon metopes and the Persians as the barbaric, eastern adversaries. Having mastered symbolic representation to the highest degree, the Greeks of the Classical Age were literally able to make order out of chaos in the rhetorical artistic program of the Parthenon. It can thus be said that the High Classical style is one of the greatest examples in history of what symbolism is able to accomplish for Homo sapiens. It was believed by the fifth century B.C. that humankind had the ability to create the ideal society – and with good reason. On this point the Chorus of Sophocles’ Antigone, written and produced at the height of the Greek Classical Age, proclaims, “Numberless wonders/ terrible wonders walk the world but none the match for man… Only Death, from Death alone he will find no rescue.”22 The Classical Age in Greece was perhaps the first moment in history when the focus of human attention shifted from the cosmos to the human experience itself. Arguably, it was the realization of humanity’s outstanding abilities that accounted for the Greeks’ great cultural feats of the Classical Age. In a newly anthropocentric world, the capacities of the human mind came to be understood and subsequently exploited to create one of the greatest social institutions the world has ever seen.
The Impact and the Flaws of a Jungian Approach to Culture
One can make the claim that what has been said thus far furthers and clarifies the observations made about the nature of the human mind by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. In his book Psychology and Religion,23 Jung made the claim that the overwhelming presence of religion in human cultures around the world and throughout history is a result of some common feature within the human psyche. In other words, it is an instinctive and arbitrary reaction to our environment, a way of dealing with and coming to comprehend the world around us and our own psychic experience. Religion and other cultural practices allow us to overcome the unaccountable forces of the human unconscious, Jung claimed. Like Geertz, Jung cites an inherent lacking in the human mind that must be supplemented by external symbolic cultural forces to give order to our otherwise chaotic existence in the world. In this way, culture is a necessary aspect of human life and derived directly from the human mental condition.
However, in his studies of human religion Jung did not deal with the physicality of the brain in developing his theory on the purpose of culture. As a psychologist and not a neuroscientist, it comes as no surprise that Jung would neglect to take into account the brain’s anatomy. Yet this by no means is an excuse for what appears to me as the major flaw of Jung’s work. In omitting any physical factor in the development of human cultural practices, Jung has made his claim speculative by design. By remaining in the realm of psychology Jung places himself in a corner, preventing any further development of his argument. The human brain is comprised of two parts, the physical brain and the non-material mind; thus to fully understand the role of culture in human life it is necessary to draw conclusions based on the workings of both. Ignoring the physical brain entirely, Jung has ignored what anthropologists and neuroscientists have come to accept as the key force in human cultural development.
If there is one idea I hope has been conveyed in this essay, it is that humans are so complex because of their incredible simplicity. Despite the highly developed cultural systems that humans have developed and participated in for thousands of years, the role these systems play in human life are really just the various means to reach the same ends: to satisfy the inherit lacking in the human mind that came about over thousands of years of physical evolution needed to organize what would otherwise be a chaotic existence. Without discrediting the singularity of individual cultures, we must understand the commonality that connects them all, and in doing so, recognize the commonality between all Homo sapiens.
1 Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York, New York: Perseus Books Group, 1973. Print., 49
2 Geertz, 44. Geertz uses a fuller definition in his own work: “Culture is best seen not as complexes of concrete behavior pattern – customs, usages, traditions, habit clusters – as has, by and large, been the case up to now, but as a set of control mechanisms – plans, recipes, rules, instructions (what computer engineers call ‘programs’) – for the governing of behavior,” (44).
3 Geertz, 46
4 Lewis-Williams, David. The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. New York, New York: Thames & Hudson, 2002. Print. Chapter Three “A Creative Illusion” discusses the Upper to Middle Paleolithic Transition in detail. What is cited in this paper is only what I deem to be information that is supported through direct evidence, or can be concluded based on deductive reasoning stemming from what scientists and anthropologists do know for certain. Much of what is stated in the chapter I see as highly speculative and has been omitted from this paper.
5 Lewis-Williams, 77
6 Pringle, Heather. “The Origins of Creativity.” Scientific American 308.3 (2013) Electronic.
7 Lewis-Williams, Chapter 4: The Matter of Mind
8 Gerald Edelman (b. 1929), referred to in Lewis-William’s seventh chapter “An Origin of Image-Making,” fully developed his idea of Neural Darwinism in his books The Mindful Brain, published 1978, and Neural Darwinism – The Theory of Neuronal Group Selection, published 1989.
9 Edelman, The Mind in the Cave, 187
10 Edelman, The Mind in the Cave, 188
11 Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), philosopher most famous for his studies of the connection between language and mind.
12 Castriota, David. Myth, Ethos, and Actuality: Official Art in Fifth-Century B.C. Athens. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1992. Print.
13 Hesiod. Works & Days and Theogony. Tran. Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1993. Print., 26
15 Meiggs, Russell. The Athenian Empire. London: Oxford Universiy Press, 1972. Print., 26
16 Meiggs, 24
17 Meiggs, 45
18 Kagan, Donald. Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy. New York: The Free Press, 1998. Print.
19 Pollitt, J. J. Art and Experience in Classical Greece. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1972. Print., 97. The information gathered from Pollitt’s book is from the third chapter entitled “The World Under Control: The Classical Moment, c. 450 – 430 B.C.” This chapter illustrates the rise of the High Classical style of Greek art, emphasizing works such as the Parthenon.
20 See note 13
21 Polllitt, 81-82
22 Sophocles. “Antigone.” The Three Theban Plays. Tran. Robert Fagles. New York: The Viking Press, 1982. 39. Print., 378-79, 404. In Art and Experience in Classical Greece, Pollitt also makes reference to lines from Antigone, though uses a different translation.
23 Jung, Carl Gustav. Psychology and Religion. Binghamton, New York: The Vail-Ballou Press, Inc., 1938. Print.