Rationality

Several thousand miles and two millennia distant, the Greeks built the Parthenon on top of a rock outcropping called the Acropolis. Prominent above a natural harbor, the site was ideal as a fortified center for the city of Athens, and later for civic and ceremonial functions. Today, it is the most famous ruin in the world as well as a symbol of the Greek contribution to the development of rational thought, science, art, and democracy. But our knowledge of its origins, the intentions of its instigator, Pericles, and its architect, Iktinos, and the circumstances of its construction are remarkably sketchy. Other than one by Plutarch, the only reference to the Parthenon in the ancient world is from one Pausanias, who wrote a paragraph about it in a Guidebook to Greece six hundred years after its construction (Beard 2003, 23). Yet we do know that the building of the Parthenon coincided with the apogee and decline of the Greek empire between AD 447 and 404 as its most eloquent physical expression. The Parthenon, the first temple built entirely from marble, represented the height of the refinement of temple design. Iktinos's art lay in his use of deception so that almost no line in the structure is entirely straight. In appreciation, Paul Valery once wrote:

Standing before a building in which mass was so sensitively lightened, a building that seemed so simple, no one was aware that the sense of happiness he felt was caused by curves and bends that were almost imperceptible yet immensely powerful. The beholder was unaware that he was responding to a combination of regularity and irregularity the architect had hidden in his work, a combination as strong as it is impossible to describe. (quoted in Meier 2000, 350)

From a sufficient distance the Parthenon looks absolutely square; the eye is deceived by the practice of making the columns swell slightly toward the middle (entasis), and bending them slightly inward while they rest on a slightly convex platform (Hurwit 2004, 118). The Parthenon is deceptive in other ways that are neither so artistic nor admirable. It was funded by the profits of the Greek empire and built from marble mined by slaves at the onset of the wars that ended Athenian democracy. In the words of Loren Samons, it "is not a testament to Athenian democracy, humanism, or liberalism . . . [but] first and foremost a monument to Athenian power, glory, and victory over both barbarians and . . . other Greeks" (quoted in Hurwit 2004, 55).

Still, from the site of the forum or agora below, it is possible to hear the distant echoes of conversations that occurred in that brief moment in time about life, meaning, purpose, and the possibility that humans could rise above sophistry and irrationality. If Stonehenge had to do with cosmology, the Parthenon symbolizes the possibility that humans may one day emerge from the shadows of the cave into the full sunlight of rational thought and action—a hope that seems oddly distant after the world wars, gulags, genocide, and terrorism of the past hundred years. To this endeavor the Greeks gave architectural expression, raising the arts of proportion, harmony, and building science to a level some think has never been surpassed.

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