The knowledge and societal construction of classic Greek writers has, arguably, been studied since the inception of these texts—with ample praise and criticism from scholars throughout history. As the foundations of Western democracy were lain and modern rational thought, Greek epics, essays, and dialogs established a place in classroom curricula so students and instructors alike might pay due reverence. However, with the pace of today‘s modernism seeming to ever quicken, there appears to be a growing distance between the Greek‘s intellectual and civic pursuits and our own. Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath sound the alarm for the decreasing prevalence of Classical texts in many academic institutions in their book, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (1998). Have Homer, Isocrates, and Plato exhausted their purposes within contemporary contexts, becoming irrelevant as our modern polis progresses beyond what we believe their works offer? Perhaps the survival of the Classics is contingent on the legitimacy with which we continue to understand their influence.
In particular, many feminist scholars, while noting the influence of Greek writings, purport that the masculine, hegemonic realities of Greek culture beg critiques—which function primarily to delegitimize Classic texts. Conclusions that, ―the essentially patriarchal nature of
Greek society precludes assuming any ‗feminist‘ concern for the status of women‖ (Wick 1992), disregarding Classical scholarship that fails to incorporate similar condemnation. Apart from Greek literature‘s illumination of patriarchal practices standard to the ancient era, the philosophical, political, and rhetorical knowledge developed by Plato, Aristotle and others receives chastisement as a binary rigidity: The philosophical edifice built by Plato and his student Aristotle has provided a conceptual ground for centuries‘ more exclusions. Aristotle, while offering an elaborate theory of rhetoric, kept it in place as an imperfect system of reasoning, subordinate to science and dialectic. This very process of rank ordering knowledge carries gender implications. (Jarrett 64)
The feminist scholar, who seeks a more epistemic normative truth, will likely depose the hegemonic knowledge, which is extracted from such analyses. However, this post-structuralist scholarship does not always substantively create solutions for the criticism it espouses, resulting in denunciations of patriarchal intellectual influence, while lacking meaningful alternative agency to overcome dominance (Alcoff 415-421). Hanson and Heath seem to agree with this sentiment, although more colorfully: ―Recently, however, feminist research has grown increasingly theoretical and bitter‖ (135). Again, Classical texts seem, for the feminist scholar, to only serve a purpose as examples of archaic theoretical and cultural constructs, which the academy, at all levels, and our democratic institutions should be progressing beyond.
In many ways, some more qualifiable than others, the ancient Greeks are becoming ―others‖ for Western students of this time and place. While Greco-Roman influence on Western societies is certainly still prevalent and measurable, our interest in looking back to the Greeks as an integral step in moving democracy forward is diminishing. Aspects of the Greek culture, which are alluded through classical discursive artifacts, can be problematic for audiences. Deeply conscious of the ‗political correctness‘ within the modern rhetorical moment, audiences may disassociate their democratic experience from the practices of rape, slavery, and imperialism in the Greek model (Welch 6). The question then becomes: What, if anything, might feminist scholars still gain from the body of classical Greek rhetoric?
The answer is perhaps found both in a refusal to regard certain Greek practices, which make us uncomfortable holding ancient Greek democracy in high esteem, as a rationale to disengage with classical texts and a refusal to ignore practices of inequality by today‘s democracies. However, McManus argues, It is crucial to call attention to the highly gendered nature of the form that democracy took in classical Athens, not only to understand the historical Athens better, but also to comprehend the role gender constructions play in the political life of modern democracies that do enfranchise women. (85)
Studying classical Greek literature may often alienate modern, Western audiences, through identifications of some content as inegalitarian. However, the value of such investigations lies in the affirmation and critique of these rhetorical contexts to necessarily inform the continuous attempts to negotiate and renegotiate our humanity through the cultural and institutional means by which we are bound. While examining a broad range of Greek rhetorical constructs better suits a task beyond the scope of this investigation, this paper will explore the Greek culture and rhetoric surrounding war as it bears likeness to contemporary rhetorics of militarism. This paper will also attempt to negotiate the value of studying the Greeks through a feminist lens. The analysis proceeds with the hope that it can be made useful to the practical public it encompasses, while providing example, which legitimizes the Classics through apt critique, and will avoid ―a whir of rhetoric signifying nothing‖ (Addelson 287).
Authors have already made links to the rhetoric of the Greek sophists and contemporary feminist scholarship (Ballif, Jarratt), as well as to the ways in which the concept of nomos may inform such critiques. Wick further justifies a link between the sophists and the culture surrounding war: ―The ancient sophists‘ investigation of physis and nomos, which took place against the backdrop of the unpopular and unsettling Peloponnesian War (and) challenged the foundations of Greek society‖ (27). Since nomos can be understood as the negotiated customs of a place, looking more closely at instances when war was altering the nomos of a society can be beneficial to this analysis.
Isocrates makes an argument in the Antidosis that the atrocities of the Peloponnesian War were, partially, brought on by those in direct opposition to the sophists: sycophants.
What great evil have men of this nature (those who practice the profession of sycophancy] not accomplished through their words and actions…Did they not abuse our allies and bring false accusations against them, depriving the best citizens of their wealth and consequently inciting them to revolt from us and the desire friendship and an alliance with Sparta? Thus we found ourselves in war. We sat by, watching some of our citizens killed in battle, others captured by the enemy, and others lacking the necessities of life, as well as the democracy twice destroyed and the walls of the fatherland torn down. But the worst of all is that the whole city was in danger of being enslaved, and our enemies inhabited the Acropolis. (262-263)
Here, the evils of war are represented by captivity, slavery, and the death of democracy; not terribly unlike the outcomes of many modern engagements of warfare. Yet, Isocrates seems to be making the claim that the ―rhetoric‖ of the sycophants is disingenuous and hurts democratic aims. The rhetoric of the sophists is of further interest because ―the sophists‘ forum was a culture experimenting with the first democratic government in history, which allowed for full political equality‖ (Wick 28). While Wick goes on to recognize that this equality still did not include women as full members of society, the concept that every person‘s voice had value was beginning to emerge.
Jarratt argues the sophists‘ rhetoric constituted nomos, which held a space between the concepts of mythos and logos. The use of mythos within the sophistic argument bears importance, as ―they would excavate the origins of our myths hoping to show that all differences are cultural and not biological, and hence changeable‖ (Wick 30), allowing for a renegotiation of societal norms. While much has been said about Gorgias‘ Encomium of Helen as one renegotiated myth, his Defense of Palamedes is of interest here. The defense sets up a questioning of the hero Odysseus in his accusations that Palamedes, a lesser know fighter in the Trojan War, was treasonous and accepted bribes from the enemy. Whereas the myth surrounding
Odysseus is generally one of virtue, here Gorgias allows for such greatness to be questioned, ―It is worth finding out just what sort of man you [Odysseus] are, saying the sort of things you do‖ (199). Such rhetorical engagement opens up a space where the soldier‘s actions and assertions may be questioned, not solely glorified. This demonstrates a space where actions of war, seen as unjust, may be adjudicated, creating a nomos through mythic tradition.
The Greek playwright, Euripides, who may also be placed within the sophistic tradition, also used mythos to make assertions about humanity: ―By shifting the mythical ground of heroic exploits and subjecting his characters to human dilemmas and choices,‖ (Wick 29) we see the sophistic method at play in his dramas. A significant critique of war, voiced through a woman, is offered in The Trojan Woman: a play set during the height of Athens‘ enthusiasm for the Peloponnesian War. After the Greek city of Melos is destroyed, ―the former queen, Hecuba, now a broken old woman, relates heart-rendering tales of pillage, rape, and slaughter of men, women, and even infants‖ (Wick 34). The drama reveals the very antiheroic side of war; this is counter to many of the masculine representations present in the Homeric epic.
Hanson and Heath recognize that standards of modern, Western military engagement derive primarily from the characteristics and tactics of Greek warfare (62), giving the mythos surrounding it relevancy for an audience today. While many of the Greek‘s tactical strategies may be easily relatable to a contemporary audience, some of the culture surrounding military service can be less palpable, namely the role of women in conflict. The Homeric epic, The Iliad, centers on a war fought over the Trojan capture of Helen and the Achaean efforts to win her back. The motion of the primary conflict is set forth as Agamemnon symbolically strips
Achilles‘ honor by seizing his war prize, a woman named Briseis. One purpose women serve with respect to militaristic honor in battle is graphically linked throughout the epic, ―Whichever contenders trample on this treaty first… their enemies rape their wives‖ (Homer 138), as
seemingly divine punishment for breaking a war pact, as well as a rallying cry, mobilizing soldiers around those they must protect.
And then, finally, Meleager‘s bride, beautiful Cleopatra begged him, streaming tears, recounting all the griefs that fall to people whose city‘s seized and plundered – the men slaughtered, citadel burned to rubble, enemies dragging the children, raping the sashed and lovely women. How his spirit leapt when he heard those horrors – and buckling his gleaming armor round his body, out he rushed to war. (Homer 271)
Students of classical Greek literature are often asked to shift focus away from these and other blunt descriptions of sexual violence, as to avoid getting caught up in its atrocity. But perhaps, however unintentionally, this also serves to disengage some readers, prohibiting the formation of relevant links to the contemporary. Welch argues, ―It might be said that the main rhetorical legacy of ancient Greece given to the United States is not knowledge but the continuation of slave culture and rape culture‖ (6). If we are able to recognize the Classical rhetoric surrounding such inequities, we may be able to more clearly analyze, specifically because of its rhetorical antecedents, the rhetorical functions within modern, politically communicative acts.
Whether Greek soldiers interpreted rape within military constructs as an inherently political and rhetorical act is not clear. What can be better illuminated are the purposes served or aided by these acts both in the classical and modern age. As in The Iliad, when Phoenix tells the story of the fighter Meleager to Achilles as a persuasive tactic to dislodge his stubborn reluctance and spur him to battle, militarized rape is used rhetorically within present Western democracies to mobilize soldiers for conflict. Cynthia Enloe points to a study of Irish and British aggression between the years of 1916 and 1922. While no evidence of systematic rape amidst the turbulence
was found, ―Irish popular presumptions of widespread rape by British forces were used… to sustain a disempowering image of the Irish woman as needing the protection of a ‗brotherhood‘ of Irish nationalist male combatants‖ (Enloe, 124). Even in spaces where rape does not occur, the introduction of the rhetorical construct during times of strife seems to demonstrate a relatively consistent and admittedly human response, reflective of our culture. But to move beyond the limitations of a cultural militarism that informs gender, we must renegotiate the ways in which such constructs form an identity with our humanity.
In the backlash from the Peloponnesian War, cultural notions of virtue, truth, and gender prompted greater rigidity—emergent in the teachings and philosophical values of Plato, who is often criticized by feminist scholars for his gendered assertions (Ballif, Jarratt, Wick). Also during this time period, it seems what was understood to constitute the practice of rhetoric became more distinctly defined (along with that of masculinity and femininity) as ―Plato grants the male philosopher the fertile self-sufficiency that pre-Socratic culture had once associated with the female‖ (Wick 35). True knowledge was reserved for the philosopher kings and required the knower to disengage with humanity as it functioned in reality. As rhetoric turned to a strict understanding of logos, the feminine perspective was clouded, along with sophistic practices and notions of equality through democracy. Therefore, the value within the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and others, since they are not as useful to this feminist investigation, will not be dealt with in detail here.
Thus, we will turn our attention back to the sophists and Nomos to assess the value of their thinking as we attempt to renegotiate humanity through our modern cultural and institutional faculties. Jarratt discusses nomos as a ―way out‖ of binary, gendered constructions of understanding: as an alternate space. And indeed, nomos is related to ―space‖ which Jarratt and others note, recognizing its original connotations to ―pasture‖ (41). Carl Schmitt recognizes nomos as the ―special order of a community‖ (Dean 4), which is negotiated through acts of appropriation. Schmitt‘s theory links nomos to ways in which geography, along with mythos informs our cultural laws. As Dean puts it, ―If Michel Foucault is renowned for shifting attention away from ‗the who‘ of power to ‗the how‘ of power, Schmitt insists on ‗the where‘ of power – or rather law‖ (6). From a geo-mythographical approach, the nomos of appropriation can be understood through notions of security, which can be expressed and negotiated through cultural practices associated with war.
The Greek and Trojan women of Homer were bound to a space of domesticity in the epic war, as male soldiers assumed the public/political sphere. The ―poetics of space‖ (Dean 1) articulated through the epic aligns with much of the modern culture surrounding and impacting more modern warfare and notions of security: ―this worldview privileges a view of security that is constructed out of values associated with hegemonic masculinity‖ (Tickner 36). War, then, becomes a likely result of the attempt to negotiate the security of one‘s appropriations, be it Helen, or her modern counterparts, as ―appropriation becomes lost in identity issues in which people are fighting over their roots and sense of security‖ (Dean 9), reinforcing the gap between
the spaces of the domestic and the spaces of the political, the spaces of the public and the spaces of the private.
However, if we are able to negotiate the nomos, the cultural customs of space outside the mythos of such traditional binaries (as did the sophists), we may begin to discover ways these Classical Greek writers are useful to modern feminists, as methods to legitimize new special orientations. Nomos, though seemingly culturally bound, is not stagnant. As Jarratt stresses, it carries with it ―the importance of human agency‖ (44). Therefore, the ways nomos inform our identity, constructed by the spaces to which we are a part, can be renegotiated. Much like the call of many feminists in the twentieth century became ―the personal is the political‖ (Freedman 327), we can reconstruct the divide between the spaces of identity to discover a new nomos.
Just as sophists like Protagoras employed rhetoric, which could carry over to the citizens‘ role in the polis (Ballif 68), such feminist rhetorical work may have shifted from theoretical to politically impactful. Women can rhetorically construct their own spheres of security by reappropriating the cultural nomos. By recognizing that the personal and the private spheres can be collapsed, we likewise affirm the interpersonal and the international may function on the same rhetorical plane (Feste 1994). In our globalized world, identity and security have become international constructs. Within this reality, war (and other forms of political violence) is one method through which nomos is negotiated. Some women have engaged politically and violently to reappropriate the nomos of their identity, as is the case in Chechnya and the Palestinian territories where women, working toward the goal of redefining spatial orders, became suicide bombers. Reasons for such engagement can be both personal as well as political, challenging gendered notions of security.
However, another way appropriation of space can be negotiated is through the Schmittian concept of policing, where nation-states and militaries intervene with policing action (Dean 16). Like those who behave unfavorably within the polis must learn what is culturally dictated as appropriate, forms of policing also communicate nomos on both the domestic and international scale. International bodies like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court function in part by articulating a sort of human nomos to societies across the world. Through such institutions, which are modernity‘s best representation of a global polis, women have negotiated to change understandings of the personal and political, especially in relation to feminine experiences and evaluations of war. Before this shift, rape was not customarily viewed as militarized—as something that constituted a political act.
While feminist movements in the last century documented cases of rape as early as WWI (Freedman 281), the International Criminal Court did not include wartime rape under its jurisdiction until 1997, in response to the wars in Bosnia and Rwanda. This policing carried with it a renegotiation of nomos. The customary appropriation of security through gendered constructions of masculine militarism that assumed myths of woman as prize or woman as people who needed protection was theoretically criticized and actively challenged. Actions such as this create a nomos less bound by the gendered assumptions, allowing for new identifications within the ―spatial order‖ of culture and custom.
The Greeks, who earlier demonstrated challenges to mythic assumptions to change and negotiate the societal nomos can indeed be useful for contemporary scholars. As humans today continue to engage in the democratic experiment, it seems those first engaged in its practice continue to provide relevancy. While often feminist scholarship becomes entangled in the reappropriation of theory, much to the dismay of Classicists like Hanson and Heath, it is still this work which better informs those with a keener eye toward political action and the continual improvement of the polis. By constructing identities informed by nomos that function outside of hegemonic spaces, we, like the ancient Greeks, can view such rhetorical theories as valuable as we move toward rhetorical practices constitutive of our humanity.
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