“THE PARTHENON ENIGMA” – The History of Historical Interpretations

An article in the New Yorker (4-14-14) drew my attention.  DEEP FRIEZE,  presented by Daniel Mendelsohn,  is a critique of another historian’s scholarship.  Since the Enlightenment, he notes, the Parthenon is interpreted as “designed to represent everything we have wanted both ancient Athens and our own liberal democracies to be:  the pure expression of  a rational, humanistic worldview”.  As such the Parthenon  and Athens  are seen as representing the birthplace of democracy and leading to the modern concept of democracy.  The  Parthenon’s “beauty and proportion has come to represent our political ideals and model for civil architecture.”

Mendelsohn presents his critique of historian Joan Breton Connell’s recently  published: “The Parthenon Enigma”. Connell’s controversial thesis posits that twenty-five centuries has hopelessly misinterpreted the Parthenon’s meaning and in fact, it is “unbearable to imagine on a building regarded as the “‘icon of Western art'” represents the story of human sacrifice reflected in Athens’ founding. She makes an analysis of the Parthenon’s frieze.  Mendelsohn notes: the frieze is “three feet high,  five hundred and twenty-four feet long.  The frieze represents an immense procession featuring more than six hundred participants–human, animal, and divine”.  With the frieze itself, Mendelsohn states, “she shows herself to be adept at interpretive gymnastics that frieze theorists have excelled at from the start.”  She holds that a pediment sculpture is that of a  river god who was the father-in-law of Erechtheus .   Mendelsohn concludes:  “To insinuate, that depictions of Erechtheus’  daughters are evidence of darkly barbaric culture of virgin sacrifice is a risible misrepresentation”. Daniel Mendelsohn’s New Yorker article presents an example of Historiography, or the history of historical interpretations.  He underscores that the “Parthenon’s history can reflect the prejudices and predilection of its historians”.

Attending graduate school at the University of Minnesota in the late Sixties and early Seventies I was influenced in large degree by David Noble.  He taught American Studies,  a new social science discipline at the time.  Noble, a respected teacher and noted historiographer, taught, among several subject areas, American Intellectual History.  As a student in  Noble’s American Intellectual History sequence as well as his guidance of my personal readings  shaped one  direction my study and teaching would take. A most influential reading under his guidance was Thomas Kuhn’s influential and controversial: “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”(1962). Kuhn elaborated scientific revolutions resulting in “paradigm shift” accompanied by a shift in world view.  “Paradigm Shift” today is a term in common English usage.

Some years later my research resulted in a historiography study of Reconstruction titled: “The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Problem of Reconstruction History”. One conclusion drawn was: “Each era intellectual history makes clear, perceives  the world in terms of thought patterns or block structures, which give coherence to reality.  Paradigms, changing almost imperceptibly in response to complex forces within reality, control the judgment of an historian no less than contemporaries.  The historian depends on his/her perception of verity and moral certainty which gives meaning to the his/her life.  The inability of honestly objective historians to shake biases and prejudices is easily diagnosed by the historiographer.  Historians possess their own value systems; therefore, moral judgment upon the past is unavoidable.  The historian’s struggle is an objective comprehension of the past.  It is an obligation, therefore, to deliberate the judgments upon the past which are most compatible with convictions.   The same duty devolves upon the historiographer when critiquing the bias of historians.”


Published by profbartling1

Retired professor Concordia University, St. Paul, Mn. Taught mainly American History. Also taught in other areas of history, philosophy, and theology,

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