The Parthenon

31 March 2008

Last summer our family took a little trip to Nashville,
Tennessee, so our college bound could pay a
visit to Vanderbilt
University.  While
in Nashville
for the quick trip, we had time to do just one thing in addition to the
university tour, so we opted to visit the Parthenon. 

Yep, you heard that
right.  The Parthenon.  For those who live in Tennessee, that probably comes as no
surprise.  I, on the other hand, was a bit surprised when someone
recommended that we visit the Parthenon, located in Nashville, Tennessee. 
I had always thought that if one wanted to see the Parthenon, one needed to
travel to the Acropolis, near the city of Athens,
in Greece. 
I was very surprised to be proven so wrong! 

The European settlers who first arrived in central Tennessee, in the late
1700’s and early 1800’s, were freedom seeking, individualistic, mountain men
and fur traders who made their living off the land.  The spirit of rugged
individualism remains strong in the mountains of North Carolina
and Tennessee. 
It’s even reflected in the language of those one time, remote areas.  One example is the word “you’uns,” to refer
to second person plural.  In the Northern USA, the second person plural is expressed as
"youse" or "you guys".  In most parts of the South, it
is "ya’ll" which is a contraction for "you all".  But
not in the mountains settled by the Protestant mountaineers.  The proper
form of address is "you’uns," which (my friend informed me) is a
contraction for "you ones".  Individualists. 

The Mountain men were such individualists, and so committed to Democracy and
what they considered to be the freedom of self determination, that they walked
Eastward during the American Revolution and confronted the loyalist forces at
King’s Mountain in North Carolina, a battle which is generally recognized as
the turning point in that war:  Prior to that time Loyalist forces
generally won and after that time they generally lost (in what we must
hopefully acknowledge was a bloody civil war). 

I’m sure that these men were somewhat rough and tumble.  But in the mid
1800’s, as civilization (in the form of settlers with less transient lifestyles)
arrived in those mountains, it was hoped that a higher form of culture could be
achieved.  In the outpost town of Nashville,
this was pursued through espousing a return to the Classics:  Classic
thought, Classic education, Classic ideals.  (To non-native speakers of
English, I will explain that the term Classic generally refers to the culture
of Greece and Rome.)  As part of the project of returning to the
classical traditions of civilization, in the 1840’s, an educator named Philip
Lindsay persuaded Nashville city leaders to
begin promoting Nashville as the "Athens of the West" and pursuing the idea of Nashville as a democratic
city-state on the frontier. 

As westward expansion
progressed across North America, however, Nashville
soon was no longer the western boundary of the frontier.  The city then
began calling itself  the "Athens
of the South".  In the late 1800’s, as they were preparing for the
Centennial of the founding of the City of Nashville,
the leaders of the community decided to build a centennial mall.  In light
of its aspiration to be the Athens
of the South, it was decided that the mall would be anchored by an exact
replica of the Parthenon. 

Ultimately, that decision resulted in the construction of an exact replica of
the Parthenon, complete with artwork and statue of Athena in the interior.  This replica was originally made of wood, but
it was so popular that it was turned into a permanent exhibit which now forms
the centerpiece of a park in Nashville. 

The Nashville Parthenon is the
only full size replica of that building in existence. Its 7-ton, bronze
entrance doors are the largest of their kind in the world. The pediment reliefs
were created from direct casts of the originals, which are housed in the British Museum of Art.  The Nashville
Parthenon makes a very interesting museum, indeed, complete with a video
history which shows an animation of the construction, history, and ultimately
the destruction of, the original temple built to the Greek goddess

(History of the Nashville Parthenon and the Tennessee Centennial, 

The Nashville Parthenon web
page also states:  "[i]n Greece the original Parthenon sits
as a sketchy resemblance of its past prominence, having been devastated by an
explosion in the year 1687 AD. and surviving somewhat the trials of War,
Bureaucracy and Tyranny."  Indeed, it was somewhat special to see the
Parthenon more like it might have appeared before its demise into the ruin that
it is today, sitting on the Acropolis above Athens. 

But something in recent events brought this visit to the Parthenon back to my
mind:  the Olympic Torch just embarked upon its journey to the Beijing
Olympics.  I recently saw video footage of the torch.  The video
footage, showing protestors and torch alike, was filmed so that the original
Parthenon could be seen in the background.  The real Parthenon, crumbled
and empty, stands in stark contrast to the reproduction in Nashville, which seeks to show it in its
heyday.  That contrast is actually what struck me, and what I’d like to
consider in this blog entry. 

The original Parthenon was built between 447 – 432 B.C., as a temple to the
Goddess Athena 
(  Built from
pentelic marble, it is considered to be the culmination of the Doric order of
classical Greek architecture
(  Obviously, it is
old, almost 2,500 years old in fact.  To put this in perspective, by the
time Rome took over Greece, the Parthenon was already
older than the cathedral Notre Dame is today.  Yet the Parthenon was
constructed with such architectural precision, as well as on such a good
foundation, that it hasn’t settled or shifted.  Prior to visiting the
museum in Nashville
I had assumed that the building had simply decayed, but this wasn’t the case at
all.  Visiting the museum, I learned that the Parthenon was in fact destroyed
rather than decayed. 

During Roman times, Athens devolved from being
an independent City state to being a remote outpost within the Roman empire.  The statue of Athena was looted from
the building.  I imagine (but don’t know)
that the building was then rededicated to the pantheon of Roman gods. 
Then, during Byzantine times, the Parthenon was converted to use as a
church.  Following the imposition of Ottoman rule in 1456, the Parthenon
was again converted, this time to use as a mosque. (A minaret was added! 
Can you imagine a minaret on the Parthenon?)  During all these
conversions, the structure survived more or less intact, until 1687. 

1687 was the year in which the Ottoman Turks at Athens were attacked by Venetian
forces.  The Ottomans encamped on the Acropolis, and they used the
Parthenon as a munitions storage facility.  I’ve read speculation that
they were gambling that the Venetians wouldn’t attack it.  But when a Venetian
shell did hit the building, the resulting explosion was spectacular.  (See
generally,,  The rest is history. 
It took just one cannonball, along with a series of decisions which failed to
value the cultural significance of the building, to destroy what has been
termed as one of the greatest architectural achievements in history. 

Athens is where
Democracy was born.  Dr. Thomas Sakoulas writes on his web site The
Parthenon (, and I
don’t dispute it:

The Athenian citizens were proud
of their cultural identity, and conscious of the historical magnitude of their
ideas. They believed that they were civilized among barbarians, and that their
cultural and political achievements were bound to alter the history of all
civilized people. The catalyst for all their accomplishments was the
development of a system of governance the likes of which the world had never seen:

Democracy, arguably the epitome of the Athenian
way of thinking, was at center stage while the Parthenon was built. This was a
direct democracy where every citizen had a voice in the common issues through
the Assembly that met on the Pnyx hill next to the Acropolis forty times per
year to decide on all matters of policy, domestic or foreign.

The fact that common people are
depicted as individuals for the first time at the Parthenon frieze
was owed to the fact that for the first time in history every citizen of a city
was recognized as a significant entity and a considerable moving force in the
polis and the observable universe.

Wow.  Look at that last line:
"every citizen of a city was recognized as a significant
entity".  Talk about individualism versus collectivism!  Talk
about clash of cultures!  The Olympics this year are hosted by a culture
that does not make this recognition, doesn’t even pay lip service to the value of

I wonder if that commitment to Democracy isn’t why Nashville,
and its independently minded citizens, chose to model their aspirations on Athens.  I’m not
claiming that Democracy is right for every culture.  I take some issue
with countries which attempt to proselytize the religion of Democracy without
any sensitivity to cultural or historic issues which would preclude success of
democracy in some the receiving country.   Democracy is a political system, not a
religion.  It is also a political system,
not an economic system.  Some people seem
to get this distinction confused. 

But what a sight, to see the Olympic torch, being carried from the shadow of
the Parthenon, from the city where democracy was born, to a country that at
this very moment in history is resisting the democratic winds so
strongly.  And, what a thought.  To
imagine a different kind of Parthenon.  An imaginary Parthenon consisting
of peaceful accommodation and cultural acceptance that is supposed to be the
hallmark of the government’s treatment here of minority peoples.  The
cultures are now clashing instead of melding, and it’s pretty clear which
culture will come out ahead:  the dominant culture, of course.  There
is no exception in history that I know of.  Why are we surprised? 
But at what cost? 

I believe that with cultural sensitivity, many issues could be resolved in
ways that would make the term "cultural genocide" seem preposterously
overstated.  But the delicate truce, like the Parthenon of Greece, is

First, there are very significant cultural blinders which render even
communication on this issue difficult, let alone agreement.  At a minimum,
policy makers need to recognize in the first place that there are actually
different cultural viewpoints that are legitimate.  Moreover, sometimes
our assessment of those viewpoints is necessarily tainted by the color of the
lense of our own cultural viewpoint.  Here’s an example illustrating the
effect of cultural lenses that was recently in the news:  rocks versus
tanks.  Eastern press watchers blasted the Western press for depicting
"biased" film footage showing protestors facing off against military
tanks.  The bias, according to accusations, was allegedly the result of
the camera footage failing to depict the "entire picture," showing
that the protestors had been looting or attacking some objects.  "Oh
no," the Western press seemed to cry, "we were wrong to do that, so
sorry!"  Well, perhaps so.  And then all photos ceased abruptly as
journalists were deported from the scene. I agree that the news reporter should
report all the facts and allow the reader to draw his own conclusion.  And
all the facts includes all the facts, not just those that are convenient for
one viewpoint or another. 

Hello?  All the facts?  At least they were trying.  While
the Republican administrations of the last several years have steadily
attempted to erode freedom of news reporters (e.g. Reagan and Granada), we actually do  try. 

The basis for the cultural "bias" is clearly evident:  in the
West, under Western values, deadly force is only justified in self defense when
it is necessitated to counter deadly force.  A famous case on this issue
involves a man who was protecting his business from burglars.  He set up a
shotgun so that when the door to the shop were opened, it would blow the
burglar to smithereens.  Sure enough, the burglar opened the door and was
blown to smithereens.  Up until this point, the self righteous business
owner loves the story.  But he’s not thinking of another, different,
perspective:  in a society that values life, the life of the burglar, no
matter how reprehensible his actions may be, outweighs the value of the
material possessions inside the business.  In other words, nothing that
burglar could steal was more valuable than his own life. In that case, the
business owner, in the resulting trial for murder, tried to argue he had acted
in self defense.  The argument didn’t hold water.  A person who
claims to act in self defense is only allowed to respond appropriately to the
threat.  There was no indication that the burglar actually posed any
threat to the life of the business owner.  In our culture, in the West, it
is viewed as murder to respond to a mere threat to property with deadly

Well, Asian culture places a higher value on the collective good than on the
individual.  In Asia, if it’s a matter of
the individual versus the collective, chaos versus order, guess who
loses?  Westerners need to understand that this is a very different value
system, where order is valued more than freedom and where the collective good
is valued more than the individual.  A person in such a society may well
gauge that society’s interest in being free from burglars justifies killing of
the burglar, even if a few innocents are blown away in the process and even if
nothing much of value was in the business.  I’m fairly confident in making
an outright speculation that the case wouldn’t have been decided as murder in
an Asian culture.  What do you think? 

Another place where there has been tragic misunderstanding and miscalculation,
sadly, has also been among the young protesters themselves, because they don’t
seem to have any grounding in the principles of nonviolence.  In this
sense, the government seems to have made a tragic miscalculation of the benefit
of separating these young people from their own religious traditions.  Had
they received training in their own custom of nonviolence, then violence and
bloodshed could have been averted.  But tragically, unless nonviolence (Ghandi’s
principle of satyagraha) is absolute, then protest is always vulnerable to
misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the cause for which one

The act of these young people in throwing rocks at a tank, no matter how
futile, does give that tank operator rationale, however small, to
retaliate.  When he becomes violent in any way, the protester becomes a
victimizer rather than a victim.  This enables denial and accusations
which can be used to justify retaliatory violence.  In contrast, it’s much
harder to convince the tank operator — or the watching world — of the
necessity for violence in the face of utter nonviolence, in the face of pure

This is one area in which the unrest last September is markedly
distinguished from the unrest more recently.  Monks last September adhered
strictly to nonviolence.  It’s kind of hard to say that a man walking in a
line to a monastery, barefoot and naked but for a saffron colored robe, was
part of a militia.  It’s hard for a mob that overturns a car or burns a
shop and its inhabitants to claim it acted with moral purity of motive. 
The failure of protesters to understand and adhere absolutely to nonviolence
will only achieve the opposition goal of marginalizing their message by
classifying it as self interested violence which justifies retaliation and
suppression, hence leading to further violence directed at those who see
themselves as the victims. 

These are all things to think about.  Both good and bad.  For better
or worse, the world is confronted with the issue of cross cultural interplay as
resoundingly as any environmental or political or economic issue.  For
culture underlies every assumption, the very world view which affects policy in
all the other areas.  In an age where the world is flat, where the market
place of ideas is as large as the world itself, the collective community needs
to learn very quickly, on the fly, how to confront and deal with these issues
of cultural difference.  For the risk is so high. 

After Centuries of standing on the Acropolis, all it took for the Parthenon
to be destroyed was one brief moment in time. 
Just one calculated (or miscalculated) judgment by perhaps by just one
person.  And then it was all destroyed. 
The lesson of contrasts and conflict is readily apparent, and the world
is watching. As noted in The Economist, "the coming months will
provide much opportunity for miscalculation by China in its handling of Tibetan
unrest" (The Economist, "Welcome to the Olympics,"

Here’s to crossing our fingers and hoping there is a rainbow somewhere at
the end of the rain. 


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