Mileto sito archeologico

“From the Hellespont: The Mediterranean Experience of Limit” by Romano Gasparotti

[Tempo di Lettura: 6 minuti]

1 If we attribute the distinction between the Orient and the Occident to Herodotus, the father of Greek historiography (5th century b.C.), it is important to note that he identified the former as Asie and the latter as Eyrope, locating the border between these two “worlds” in the Hellespont, a strip of sea linking the Thracian Sea and the Mediterranean side of the Aegean. With the term Asie, Herodotus and the Greeks referred in particular to ancient Lydia, East of Ionia. Thus, the Orient began on the Mediterranean coast of Asia Minor. Every border, being a “limit,” separates as much as it connects. According to Hesiod (7th century b.C.), Eyrope kai Asie (Europe and Asia) were mythical sisters, the daughters of Oceanus and Tethys. It was Alexander the Great who – geopolitically speaking – restored their sisterhood. His deeds inaugurated the age of Hellenism, which vanquished Herodotus’ division between Ellenes (the Greeks) and barbaroi (foreigners, non-Greeks); not without consequences, if we consider that one of the most significant products of post-classic Greece such as Stoicism – which was very close to the Eastern philosophies on many levels – remained the most prominent ideology in Rome up until the early imperial age. Interestingly enough, philosophy itself was born on the Hellespont: along the coast of the Aegean and in the Greek part of Asia Minor (Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes came from Miletus, Heraclitus was born in Ephesus, Pythagoras in Samos, and Pherecydes in Syros) and in the Greek colonies of Western Magna Graecia. Only later (in Venice and the Mediterranean the 5th century b.C.) did it relocate in Athens. This shows how that tiny strip of sea east of the Mediterranean that the Greeks called the Hellespont never functioned as a demarcation line, but rather as a “limit” which belonged to both areas and disabled any chance of mutual estrangement.

Mileto sito archeologico
Mileto sito archeologico

2 First of all, Herodotus’ differentiation took language into account: those who inhabited the territories east of Ionia tended to stutter and stammer when speaking Greek, which is why they were called barbaros. Second, it underscored the different political systems: on the one hand the State as a universal territorial entity, on the other hand the polis, which amounted to the self-determined, self-contained totality of its citizens. There is a compelling theoretical/cultural reason why Herodotus could not help envisioning the Hellespont as a separation line. He was, in fact, the founder of istorie, a tradition of historiographical writing that appears as entirely different from Oriental historical narrations due to its logical and analytical quality and rigorous causality. Such model is based on a dichotomous logic according to which one is either a Greek or a barbarian, either an Athenian or a Spartan, either a free man or a slave – tertium non datur. If one considers the implications beyond its formal value, this principle of identity/contradiction (according to which two entities that are essentially other are mutually exclusive), lays the basis for every discriminatory and immunity1 – related device and posture. It is important to note that, to put it with historian Santo Mazzarino, “the research method of istorie attempts to escape ‘facts’ by understanding them, in their genesis, as ‘acts’”.2 Herodotus’ historiography thus escapes the ‘event’ by preventively transposing it into the realm of meaning, as the latter could easily be subjected to the identitarian and causal logic to which no event per se can be subjected. And yet, the great Greek poet Pindar warns us that “blind are the thoughts of men, when they seek the way with the artifices of intelligence, and without the Muses”. Similarly, Parmenides of Elea (a Greek colony on the Tyrrhenian, south of Naples), whom Plato considered to be “the father of philosophy,” speaks of mortal men as “two-headed creatures (dikranoi), due to their inability to use any device (amechanie), that may address, in their heart, their eternally conflicted mind” (fr.6, vv. 5-6). The inability to “stand still” and perpetual oscillating of these “two-headed” men – who search for an harmony that, according to Heraclitus, can be found only between two “diverging” entities (fr. 8) – are due to their inability to exclusively and unilaterally use the effective logical-analytical instruments that set them apart from all other living beings. If searching and experimenting is the vocation of mortal beings, Parmenides’ “two- headed” men cannot solely rely on intelligence. If they do, the expression of their knowledge would resemble the obnoxious squawking of “turbulent crows” (like the ones Pindar describes in his Olympics). It is exactly for this reason that they cannot always be on one side of the “limit,” as they inhabit a space across the limit itself and cannot help but oscillating between one side and the other. In this light, East and West can be seen as a symbolon, which Plato describes in The Symposium (dedicated to the demoniac force of Eros) as “one-of-two” or “two-in-one”.3
In Ancient Greece, the symbolon was a pot fragment that stood for the indissoluble union of two lovers, marked by a line which did not break the whole in two parts. Quite the contrary: once broken, the fragment would have been destroyed. Etymologically, the noun derives from a verb which, in the active voice, meant a union that did not imply a fusion or perfect synthesis. In the middle voice, the same verb indicated that this kind of duality – within which two entities bounced back and forth – never generated assimilation, confusion, or separation.
From this perspective, the Mediterranean is a perfect crucible of “sym-bolic” experiences, and yet this vocation has been repeatedly contested and put on trial across the ancient and recent history of Europe. Each and every rupture of the dynamic circularity of the symbolon has been a consequence of the unilateral absolutization of a historical/rationalistic perspective on both the cultural and socio-political levels, and of the obstinate resolution of mortal men to act with one head only – with intelligence alone and without the gifts of Eros and the Muses. This inevitably generates all kinds of discriminatory and immunitarian mindsets, such as xenofobia, racism, and religious intolerance. As a result, the Mediterranean ceased to be the “middle sea” par excellence and became a space of exclusion and barriers, ultimately precluding the possibility of authentic experience (as Walter Benjamin wrote in 1933).4

3 What does it imply exactly, for Mediterranean Europe, to fulfill its destiny? As dikranos creatures, mortals will always seek a harmony that never stands still, but dwells in a perennial tension that Heraclitus compared to “that of the bow and the lyre” (fr. 51), which continuously “travels from one extreme to the other” (ivi). First of all, it implies the acquisition of a habitus, namely, that of questioning any given statement. On the one hand, it is true that narrow-mindedness and monoculturalism represent the most extreme expression of the “dikranic” approach. On the other hand, it is equally true that: a) Orientalism is merely another manifestation of the same approach; b) pluralism revolves around a limited notion of tolerance that had its origins in liberalism and the Enlightenment, which rests on a conspicuous inequality between the tolerant and the tolerated; c) multiculturalism tends to regard cultural differences as immutable and unalterable, and valorizes difference in a thoroughly abstract way. It is not simply about dialogue either. Every dia-logos requires an interaction between an I and a You, as E. Benveniste’s 5 studies in semiotics and linguistics showed. The Subject – who dominated Western modernity and recently contaminated Eastern civilizations too – exists only within a language system that develops around first- and second-person pronouns. In such a framework, the Subject affirms his/her self-centered identity by defining him/herself as “I” addressing “you”. To put it with G. Pasqualotto,6 every culture is an “interculture”: a flexible, porous network, the product of encounters, rejections, crossings, contaminations, continuously subjected to the modifications caused by the interconnection between inside and outside, east and west. If that is the case, the different cultural inputs need to be experimented with in a sort of permanent laboratory where they can be made to interact – with intelligence, love, and art – as it is in their nature to be constantly interacting. The effects of these interactions need to be critically evaluated without prejudices and personal biases, from a third-person perspective which, for Benveniste, represents the non-person, the dissolution of subject identities. As J.W. Goethe wrote in his West-Eastern Divan, “Twixt two worlds I love the way/ Back and forth a man may sway;/ So between the East and West/ Moving to and fro’s the best”.


1 About the concept of immunitas, see R. Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2002 (tr. 2011); and Third Person, Cambridge, Polity Press 2007 (tr. 2012).
2 S. Mazzarino, Tra oriente e occidente. Ricerche di storia greca arcaica (“Between East and West: Research on Arcaic Greece”), Rizzoli, Milano 1989 (1947), p. 291.
3 For a more exhaustive evaluation of this symbolic perspective see R. Gasparotti, Filosofia dell’eros. L’uomo, l’animale erotico (“Philosophy of Eros: Man, the Erotic Animal”), Bollati-Boringhieri, Turin 2007.
4 Cfr. W.Benjamin, Experience and Poverty (1933). Italian translation: Esperienza e Povertà, AURA E CHOC. Saggi sulla teoria dei media, ed. A. Pinotti and A. Somaini, Einaudi, Turin 2012, pp. 364-369.
5 Cfr. E. Benveniste, Problems in General Linguistics University of Miami Press, Miami 1971. Italian translation: Problemi di linguistica generale, Il Saggiatore, Milano 1971.
6 Cfr. G. Pasqualotto, Tra oriente e occidente, Mimesis, Milan 2010, and Filosofia e globalizzazione. Intercultura e identità tra oriente e occidente (“Philosophy and Globalization: Interculture and Identity between East and West”), Mimesis, Milan 2011.