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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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Page 2

The man of the fields is still a sort of vegetable. His existence, all that he feels, thinks, wishes for, preserves the listless drowsiness in which the plant lives. The great civilisations of Asia and Africa were, from this point of view, huge anthropomorphic vegetations. But the Graeco-Roman decides to separate himself from the fields, from "Nature," from the geo-botanic cosmos. How is this possible? How can man withdraw himself from the fields? Where will he go, since the earth is one huge, unbounded field? Quite simple; he will mark off a portion of this field by means of walls, which set up an enclosed, finite space over against amorphous, limitless space. Here you have the public square. It is not, like the house, an "interior" shut in from above, as are the caves which exist in the fields, it is purely and simply the negation of the fields. The square, thanks to the walls which enclose it, is a portion of the countryside which turns its back on the rest, eliminates the rest and sets up in opposition to it. This lesser, rebellious field, which secedes from the limitless one, and keeps to itself, is a space sui generis, of the most novel kind, in which man frees himself from the community of the plant and the animal, leaves them outside, and creates an enclosure apart which is purely human, a civil space. Hence Socrates, the great townsman, quintessence of the spirit of the polis, can say: "I have nothing to do with the trees of the field, I have to do only with the man of the city." What has ever been known of this by the Hindu, the Persian, the Chinese, or the Egyptian? Up to the time of Alexander and of Caesar, respectively, the history of Greece and of Rome consists of an incessant struggle between these two spaces: between the rational city and the vegetable country, between the lawgiver and the husbandman, between jus and rus. Do not imagine that this origin of the city is an invention of mine, of merely symbolic truth. With strange persistence, the dwellers in the Graeco-Latin city preserve, in the deepest, primary stratum of their memories, this recollection of a synoikismos. No need to worry out texts, a simple translation is enough. Synoikismos is the resolution to live together; consequently, an assembly, in the strict double sense of the word, physical and juridical. To vegetative dispersion over the countryside succeeds civil concentration within the town. The city is the super-house, the supplanting of the infra-human abode or nest, the creation of an entity higher and more abstract than the oikos of the family. This is the res publica, the politeia, which is not made up of men and women, but of citizens. A new dimension, not reducible to the primitive one allied to the animal, is offered to human existence, and within it those who were before mere men are going to employ their best energies. In this way comes into being the city, from the first a State.

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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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