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Three Millennia of Greek Literature
The Greeks Us / Greece in West  

J. Ortega y Gassett, The Birth of the City

From The Revolt of the Masses 

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 "Our study of Greek history is a matter quite different from our other historical studies. For us the Greeks step out of the circle of history. Knowledge of the Greeks is not merely pleasant, useful or necessary to us - no, in the Greeks alone we find the ideal of that which we should like to be and to produce." - Humboldt 

      GREEKS and Latins appear in history lodged, like bees in their hives, within cities, poleis. This is a simple fact, mysterious in its origin, a fact from which we must start, without more ado, as the zoologist starts from the bald, unexplained fact that the sphex lives a solitary wanderer, whereas the golden bee exists only in hive-building swarms. Excavation and archaeology allow us to see something of what existed on the soil of Athens and Rome before Athens and Rome were there. But the transition from that pre-history, purely rural and without specific character, to the rising-up of the city, a fruit of a new kind produced on the soil of both peninsulas, this remains a secret.

    We are not even clear about the ethnic link between those prehistoric peoples and these strange communities which introduce into the repertoire of humanity a great innovation: that of building a public square and around it a city, shut in from the fields. For in truth the most accurate definition of the urbs and the polis is very like the comic definition of a cannon. You take a hole, wrap some steel wire tightly round it, and that's your cannon. So, the urbs or the polis starts by being an empty space, the forum, the agora, and all the rest is just a means of fixing that empty space, of limiting its outlines. The polis is not primarily a collection of habitable dwellings, but a meeting-place for citizens, a space set apart for public functions.

    The city is not built, as is the cottage or the domus, to shelter from the weather and to propagate the species- these are personal, family concerns- but in order to discuss public affairs. Observe that this signifies nothing less than the invention of a new kind of space, much more new than the space of Einstein. Till then only one space existed, that of the open country, with all the consequences that this involves for the existence of man.

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       Cf. W. Davis, A Day in Old Athens Schiller, A glorious humanity Hugo, In a grand parliament of intelligence Emerson, When the Gods come among men Valery, Perfection dans tous les ordres Sophocles, Nothing more wonderful and frightening than man Euripides, A city needs democracy Thucydides, Democracy of the Best Plato, Tyranny and slavery, A moving image of eternity Gennadius Scholarius, Words are the fathers of all Good Papatsonis, Hestia   Papacy

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Reference address : https://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greeks-us/gassett_city.asp