The agonia matrix

What strikes me about the ancient Mediterranean world is that it was competitive, adversarial, agonistic.

The myths that ancient people told themselves were about groups vying for prizes of all sorts, women, cities, glory. Not even the gods could escape the competition framework. Rather than being apathetic, Lucretian deities removed from the world of the mortals, the gods of ancient Greece and Rome were agents of competition fighting in an open market of Olympic proportions. Competing with each other but also with humans and against them. The most fundamental and perduring stories were anchored in the kind of agonistic combat which seems to have been the fundamental trait of the ancient Mediterranean.

Ancient culture was built on this kind of competition. The Olympic games didn’t just include what we might today call sports, but also poetry and other exercises and exertions of the mind. Greek tragedians like Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides vyied for the first prize in a variety of drama competitions. This was true of other creative activities, like poetry and painting.

In Homer, it is often not clear where war ended and game began. The Trojan war, everyone knew, had its deep origins in a beauty competition.

Death was also celebrated through games and agonistic enterprises – agonia is the Greek word designating a struggle for victory. In the Iliad and the Aeneid, the death of heroes as well as of family members was the occasion for the survivers to come up with winners in a variety of games. It seemed that no matter how grave the conflict, it could always be reduced to a competition.

In the academic field, schools competed with each other for students and renown. The Eleatics, the Stoics, the Epicurians, the Platonists, the Aristotelians, all had their stall in the marketplace of ideas, knowledge and wisdom, where the race for scholarly dominance energised all contenders.

Europe inherited this agonistic pull, which runs through pretty much everything we have today, capitalism, law, freedom, etc – and that all attempts to throttle it by replacing it with the quiet arena of empire and totalitarianism are bound to fail.

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