The ancient myth of ‘good fences’
- Humans build barriers to define themselves, but cultures truly flourish when those barriers break down
May 18, 2018-
In Robert Frost’s famous poem “Mending Wall,” the narrator describes an encounter with his neighbor at the stone wall that divides their land. They are there to repair the damage inflicted by winter. Reflecting on nature’s apparent dislike of all artificial barriers, the narrator questions the benefits of the task, and gets this answer: “Good fences make good neighbors.”Do they?
It is clear that Frost’s narrator views this bit of folk wisdom with skepticism, but by refraining from providing a firm answer to our question, the poem manages to increase our curiosity: Besides the most obvious, delineating private property, what do “fences” truly represent?
If one looks at history, the answer seems obvious: What fences have very often indicated is not simply what is mine and what is yours, but, more subtly, who I am versus who you are. This tendency is based on the human inclination to define one’s identity in contrast to someone cast as a different, an untrustworthy Other best kept at a distance.
The danger that such a separation between the self and the other can cause is evident throughout history. In ancient Greece, where a profound appreciation of human reason produced a brilliant civilization, pernicious biases were also established. Women were assumed to be guided by passions rather than rationality, and so they were considered inferior to men and excluded from the cultural and political life of the city-state. As the word “virtue”—from the Latin “vir,” meaning “man”—so clearly expresses, the ethos that Greek
as well as Roman culture fostered derived from a military and patriarchal mentality. The “fence” of bigotry and prejudice that prevent the flourishing in public life of half the population certainly hobbled the development of Greek and Roman society.
The Greeks held similarly disparaging views toward foreigners, called “barbarians” because they seemed to say “bar-bar-bar” when they spoke. The Greek word “logos,” which simultaneously indicated “language” and “rationality,” gave further validation to that premise: Those who did not share the Greek idiom were viewed as inferior Others who lacked the intellectual talents that had made possible the free and self-ruled society that the Greek polis represented. (This was in fact a unique achievement; in all other civilizations at that time absolute monarchs reigned uncontested over legions of subjects.)
The sharp division between Greek and non-Greek was vividly represented in the sculptures that were placed on the Parthenon in Athens to celebrate the victory that, against all odds, the small Greek city-states had obtained against the immense Persian Empire. To suggest that the Eastern enemy possessed none of the extraordinary qualities belonging to the Greeks, the Athenian artists used mythological comparisons that described the Persians as monstrous creatures—giants, centaurs and Amazons, female warriors that the Greeks evoked to ridicule the weak and decadent femininity of all Eastern peoples.
This was also expressed in pottery, especially, by the colorful and whimsical attire the Persians donned for war, which was contrasted with the noble nudity of the brave citizen-soldiers who fought in defense of the Greek polis.
When the Macedonian king, Alexander the Great, absorbed the Balkan Peninsula as the start of an empire that soon stretched as far as India, the experiment of the polis came to an end. Despite the fear of their eastern neighbors that the early Greeks had so diligently cultivated, the rapprochement between East and West that the unity of empire made possible proved enormously fruitful for both sides: While the rich culture of Greece reached further into Asia, the heritage of the East, which, besides art and science also included religions such as Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism, replenished with all sorts of new perspectives the cultural reservoir of the West.
A new chapter began when Rome established itself as the leader of yet another enormous empire. A major gain for the Romans was the encounter with the Hellenistic heritage that the poet Horace described with these famous words: “When Greece was taken she enslaved her rough conquerors.” Despite the enormous cultural debt they owed to the Greeks, the Romans, driven by feelings of envy and competition, promoted a mythical narrative that, echoing old prejudices, portrayed the Greeks as a decadent and effeminate people while the Romans were models of masculine virtue and uprightness.
Thanks to such greatness, the myth suggested, the gods had elected the Romans (rather than the Greeks) to spread civilization over the entire world. Those who failed to swear
allegiance to Rome’s sacred mission were labeled dangerous Others deserving annihilation.
When the barbarians, emboldened by the many problems that in time began to corrode the empire, finally crossed the borders with which Rome for so long had kept at bay all foreigners, the Eternal City collapsed both in myth and in reality. During the following turbulent centuries different peoples clashed but also mixed and merged, while Christianity became the leading religion of the West. With the rise of Islam, the Other came to be represented by the Muslims, whose rapid territorial expansion (which included cities that had been important centers of Greek and Latin culture) struck fear in the very heart of Europe.
To foster the righteous spirit of the Crusaders, Christian art depicted Muslims with monstrous traits suggesting they were closer to animals than human beings. But the humiliating defeat that the “infidels” dealt to the Crusaders turned out to be an unexpected gift: The Christian world, having come into contact with the Muslim intelligentsia, rediscovered its own cultural roots—the classical heritage that eventually led to the blooming of the Renaissance.
What that seems to prove is that, just as Frost’s narrator suggests when he recalls how the winter sabotages walls, the regeneration that culture always needs can occur only when the fences of prejudice are breached to allow encounters between different people, traditions and ideas.
—©2018 The New York Times
Published: 18-05-2018 07:31