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by Archaeology Newsroom

The individual in the city-state

The starting point of our research lies in Louis Dumond’s distinction of two diametrically different Types of Individiuals, i.e. the endocosmic and exocosmic one. We wish to test the validity of this general classification by examining the overall situation in the archaic and classical Greece, between the eightth and fourth centuries B.C. First we must make two significant remarks. The first refers to the ancient Greek religion and society, while the second to the concept of individual in itself. Greek polytheism is a religion of endocosmic character. On the other hand, Greek society lacks hierarcy and is characterized by equality. The city defines, under the principle of equality, the body of individuals who comprise it. The second remark defines the concept of individual and individualism. We propose a classification which, although contains a disputable element, permits the clarification of the subject.

a. The individual, stricto sensu: His position, role and merit in the social group, his limits, licence and relative autonomy in the institutional framework he belongs to.

b. The subject: When speaking for himself in the first person singular, he gives a reliable account of certain characteristics, which define him as a unique being.

c. The ego, the person: The entity of practical and psychological approaches, which grant the subject with a property of inwardness and uniqueness that promote it to a prototype, a sole and real being.

Let’s start from the individual. In order to examine his presence in Greece we have three accesses at our disposal: The individual evaluated as such in his uniqueness; the individual and his personal sphere: the private dimension; finally, the participation of the individual in social institutions, whose function has been of vital and crucial importance already since the classical age. We will refer to two examples of “unusual” individuals from the archaic period. Achilles, the hero warrior, on the one hand and Ermotimos or Epiphanides or Empedocles, the inspired magician, on the other. Already, since the years of the most archaic forms of cities — by the late eighth century — and the Homeric age, two sectors are roughly described, that are both related to and affect each other: the common and the private. The common sector was comprised of all the activities and practices, which must be typical of participation and in which the individual had to partake, if he wanted to be considered a citizen. While the private, was an undivided and absolutely personal sector. The burial rituals and monuments show the predominance of the private over the public sphere, exhibiting a wealth of sentimental bounds, which connected the individual with his human environment. In Attica, until the late sixth century, graves were purposed for a singe burial, thus extending the ideology of the heroic individual, heroic in its uniqueness. Leaving apart the private, we will examine the public sector. There existed: a series of institutions, which helped the promotion of certain aspects of the individual. Two examples, relevant to religious and law institutions, respectively, will elucidate our argument.

Apart from the official religion there existed the Mysteries, such as the Eleusinian ones. They were performed under the auspices of the state, although they were accessible to every Greek-speaking individual, Athenian or foreigner, woman or man, slave or master.

However, the presence of the individual in the core of public institutions becomes apparent mainly through the law evolution (see, for example, the poenal law and the will). As regards the subject, the use of the first person singular in a text may be interpreted in various ways, depending on the nature of the text and the form of expression. Finally, the Greeks of the archaic and classical era did have a knowledge of their ego, such as of their body, although this knoweledge and experience was different in quality from ours. Ego had weither boundaries nor unity. It was a field open to multiple forces, as H. Frankel has conceived it. This experience was mainly oriented inwards. The individual had to be sought and discovered in his human environment, which reflected like a mirror his image and consisted his alter ego: parents, children, friends. He did not create a closed internal world, which he had to penetrate in order to fully recognize or reveal himself. On the contrary, his justification lies upon the others. A like the eye cannot see itself, the individual is looking around him for self-understanding. The conscience of himsef was not the result of meditation or self-concentration. It was simply existential. Existence comes before the consciousness of existence. Therefore the common saying “l think, therefore, I exist” cannot be applied to an ancient Greek. The care about one’s self, as it appeared in the late pagan period, will lead to a new concept of person, granting to the individual of the West his original characteristics and distinct physiognomy. This change took place during the third and fourth centuries AD. Peter Brown has masterly elucidated the circumstances and the impact of this new approach and attitude on the social, religious and spiritual sphere. The appearance of the saint, the man of God, the ascete, introduced a new type of individual who had abandoned the trivial world and set himself free from the bounds of society in order to pursuit his true ego. The search for God and the investigation of ego was the duality of the same lonesome trial. A new form of identity was thus realized: it defined the human being on the base of his inmost thoughts. Here lies the very beginning of the modern type of individual. But this breach with the pagan past also manifested a sequence. These men were not deniers. During their search for God, for themselves, for God in themselves, they were looking at the earth. By gaining a celestial authority, which had sealed their physiognoly so as to be undoubtedly recognized by their contemporaries as real “friends of God”, they were judged as qualified to complete their mission on earth. Augustine is an excellent witness of the change in the evolution of the human personality, when he speaks about the abyss of human conscience or when he wonders about the incomprehensibility and multiplicity of mans memory and the mystery of his existence.

The new content of person was connected with a different and more intimate relation of the individual with God. Peter Brown underlines the variety of changes, which has affected the structure of ego during the fourth century AD. Thus, he remarks that the special attention and merit given to the supernatural, during this period of transformation, -has bound man to the world more dynamically than ever, by creating new or reformed institutions. The man of Augustine who dares to say “I”, when talking to God, stands very far apart from the citizen of the classical city, i.e. the homo aequalis of the pagan antiquity, and is completely remote from the denier or the homo hierarchicus of the Indian civilization.