Intellectual history

The Parthenon as a Metaphor of Democracy

By David Borkenhagen

By David Borkenhagen

The story of democracy is inextricably linked to the Parthenon, and the building is often considered the symbol of Athenian democracy. But does the building do more than symbolize democracy? Specifically, does the design of the Parthenon, including its symmetry and transparency, as well as its spatial position atop the Acropolis in the center of ancient Athens, serve as a physical metaphor through which the abstract concept of democracy is grounded? Applying the novel theory of embodied cognition supports this claim and forces us to consider the profound role architecture and landscape play in shaping the human psyche.

The theory of embodied cognition claims that thinking about cognitive concepts activates mental simulations of the perceptual-motor systems that were involved during the initial encoding of a mental concept. For example, thinking about the concept of “dog” activates mental simulations of a dog’s look, smell, and feel. Concepts are meaningful because they are “grounded” in previous experiences. This is important for intellectual history because it suggests a mechanism through which new ideas emerge, including ideas—like democracy—that conceptualize radically different configurations of power throughout society.

Embodied cognition explains the content of concrete concepts (i.e., concepts that have referents in the physical world) and also helps explain the content of abstract concepts—like truth, emotion, power, time, and democracy—despite the fact they do not feature real-world referents and hence cannot be perceived with our senses or manipulated by our actions. Research has shown that abstract concepts can also be grounded in perceptual-embodied simulations, but these simulations are more complex than those for concrete concepts. Metaphors are a window into this grounding process. For example, love—an abstract concept—is metaphorically described as a “journey,” crime as a “disease,” and argument as “war.” What is known about the physical realities of journeys, diseases, and war is used to ground the abstract concepts they represent. You will hear metaphors everywhere in daily discourse if you train your ear, including in talk about politics.

Architecture plays a role in grounding abstract concepts because it intentionally curates specific perceptual-embodied experiences. Parliamentary buildings, for example, use space to emphasize who is in charge and who is not. They often feature lofty open spaces and colonnaded exteriors making an association between openness and democracy. Churches, too, in their ornate grandeur, exemplify the awesome nature of God. Highly controlled manipulations of architectural experiences have been conducted by experimental psychologists to reveal effects. One experiment demonstrated that thinking outside of a literal box improves creativity, and another showed that political judgments are liberal when body posture is skewed leftward. Taken together, this analysis suggests that architecture may play a role in scaffolding abstract concepts.

The idea of democracy is perhaps one of the most influential ideas in world politics. It achieved some success after the 1848 Revolutions when the idea swept through Europe. Today, only seven countries around the world claim a governance system other than democracy (although not all countries do it sincerely, see the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Humans will leave nations, create new ones, depose of leaders, and go to war, all in the name of democracy. This is because, for many individuals, specifically those who feel left outside of decision-making, democracy represents a chance to improve their quality of life in comparison to oppressive political systems.

Before ancient Athens developed its form of democracy, the city was ruled by the tyrant Hippias, who imposed harsh taxes on citizens and exiled and executed others. Following Hippias’ forceful removal from power, the lawgiver Cleisthenes implemented reformations to produce a more democratic political system. He dismantled the main political groups previously organized around family and class, and grouped citizens from the geographic area they resided in. These groupings—called demes—gave all citizens access to political power irrespective of their family name or wealth. Demes are still effectively present in our democracies today, coming in the form of congressional districts. Cleisthenes also implemented a sortition system, where government officials were selected randomly as opposed to through kinship or heredity. He reconfigured the Boule—the city’s council for daily affairs—so that its members proportionally represented the ten demes of which Athens was composed. Ancient Athenian democracy was funded by a deeply hierarchical empire and included only about 10 percent to 20 percent of the city’s inhabitants, leaving out slaves, foreign residents, and women, a condition that was consistent with broader exclusionary policies that were common at the time. Still, the democratic reformations represented a massive shift in the Athenian political structure. Phrased using the terminology of psychology, shifting from a centralized system of governance to a democratic one was contingent upon a radical change in an abstract conceptualization about the distribution of power in society. This analysis prompts the question: how did the ancient Athenians do it?

Grand ideas in politics are often accompanied by equally grand symbology. Flags, animals, gestures, and architecture have all been used as symbols for political movements. The Parthenon is often considered the symbol of Athenian democracy, given it was commissioned in the mid-5th century BC by Pericles, another Athenian politician who, like Cleisthenes, implemented numerous democratic reformations to the city’s political structure. The building’s design also incorporates populist themes, such as using column styles from both the Ionian and Dorian tribes, the two major ethnic groupings in ancient Greece, as opposed to just one style, as well as including sculptures of Athenian citizens on the building’s frieze—an honor formerly reserved for Greek Gods. Further, once a year in the summertime, during the Panathenaic procession, Athenian citizens of all backgrounds would visit the Parthenon to participate in a sacrificial ceremony. The Parthenon’s relationship to democracy was etched into Western mythology by Philipp Foltz, a 19th century German artist, who, in his 1852 painting titled Pericles’s Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede, pictured below), paints Pericles giving a funeral oration to Athenians at the Pnyx at the base of the Acropolis, gesturing upwards towards the Parthenon. In his speech, Pericles spoke of Athenian greatness and how equal justice under the law, equal access to political office, and individual freedom set Athens apart from its neighbors. Surrounding Pericles is a dense crowd listening intently, but in this painting, Foltz left a notable amount of empty space between Pericles and the Parthenon, which he painted white and pristine in the distance. The combination of Pericles’ upward gesture, gaze, and the Parthenon’s brightness indicates something meaningful—democracy—is emerging at this moment and, in its context, at the foot of the Parthenon.

Yet, limiting the Parthenon to a symbol of democracy overlooks its embodied associations. Humans gather information from the world through multiple senses, one of which is vision. Symbols are uniquely visual, and the relationship between the symbol (the signifier) and the signified mental concept can often be arbitrary. Metaphors are different in that the relationship between the metaphor and the signified concept is tangible on at least one experiential dimension. The metaphor all the world’s a stage works because the experience of being on a stage is similar to—in experiential terms—the social observation experienced in the world. Like all pieces of architecture, the Parthenon produces multi-modal effects on visitors, stimulating visual, tactile, and proprioceptive sensory pathways. This fact, coupled with what is now known about embodied cognition and abstract concepts, forces us to consider whether the Parthenon grounds the abstract concept of democracy through a perceptual-embodied metaphor.

An answer to this consideration emerges from an analysis of the perceptual-embodied experience of the Parthenon. The experience begins with the Acropolis–the rocky outcrop on which the Parthenon is built–which is situated near ancient Athens’s center point. Its height and vertical edges are a stark contrast against the surrounding Attica Basin. The Greek word “acropolis” literally means “the highest point of the town”. The Parthenon is mathematically precise, with exactly 2x+1 as many side columns as front facing ones, creating a rectangle of pleasing proportions. The perimeter colonnade gives the structure a visual transparency, allowing external observers to perceive the cella–the enclosed room in the middle–to be perceivable. Perhaps most poignantly is that the top of the Parthenon is visible from almost any vantage point in ancient Athens. It is visible from the Kerameikos suburb to the west, the market grounds of the Agora in the north, the streets of the Plaka neighborhood in the east, and the Pnyx assembly to the south, where the Pericles famously orated. In this way, the Parthenon has a nearly equal visual relation with every Athenian citizen, no matter where they resided.

It is through these perceptual-embodied experiences—it is argued—that the abstract concept of democracy is grounded. Specifically, the Parthenon’s visual transparency grounds democracy’s transparent processes, its rectilinearity, and mathematical exactitude ground democracy’s systematically equal processes. Its centrality in ancient Athens and visual perceivability by all surrounding citizens ground democracy’s equality of access, and its elevated spatial position atop the Acropolis ground democracy’s power. Given the structure is—for the most part—still standing, its effects continue to function on visitors today.

Importantly, it is not claimed that the Parthenon was intentionally designed to produce these effects. Theories of embodied cognition did not exist at that time, nor did a formalized science of psychology. Thus, the causal paradigm of emergence more accurately accounts for the design. In this paradigm, natural phenomena, such as murmurations, may come into existence as a result a complex sub-system of interacting parts, the conditions of which are often too complex to reduce to a simple mathematical formula. Both democracy and the Parthenon emerged within the context of the complex social, economic, cultural, and political conditions of ancient Athens, which was increasingly prioritizing metaphysical principles like transparency, symmetry, and equality within the city-state. The fact that these events occurred even as Athens dictated terms to its maritime empire, fought a long war against Sparta for hegemony in Greece, and continued its imperialist expansions in the Ionian and Aegean seas highlights the dynamical—not linear—nature of the development of democracy in history. Certain people were allowed to ‘inhabit’ the metaphor of open democracy, whereas others, such as the Mytileneans, were clearly not during the war. The tensions between liberalism, democracy, and empire remained long after ancient Greece.

The perceptual-embodied association between the Parthenon and democracy forces an acknowledgment of the role landscape play in setting the stage for the Parthenon’s spatial condition. The Acropolis allowed the Parthenon to occupy a high position at the near center point of the city, which are two spatial conditions directly meaningful to grounding the abstract concept of democracy. This makes the emergence of democracy in Athens all the more poignant, as it suggests it was not just a result of human endeavors but also, in part, conditional on the city’s landscape. This analysis also suggests landscapes all over the world play a role in setting the parameters for abstract thought. For example, in Tzeltal, a dialect spoken in mountainous regions of Mexico, the future is conceptualized as uphill and the past as downhill. In other words, the mountainous landscape was not just a physical reality locals had to confront but also one that scaffolded their conceptualization of time. This example, along with that of Athens, provides intriguing evidence of the role space plays in shaping abstract thought. Given the complexity of the physical world and the endless possibilities offered by architecture, designing space becomes an invaluable tool in the quest to uncover new geographies of thought.

David Borkenhagen is a Psychology PhD student in Dr. Colin Ellard’s Urban Realities Lab at the University of Waterloo. He is currently researching pathogen risk perception in urban and architectural environments and its subsequent effects on cautionary behaviors. Outside of this work, his research focuses on cross-modal representations of space in human cognition, such as during social cognition or metaphoric reasoning. These investigations are supplemented by contemporary discourses from the discipline of architecture in order to develop a comprehensive, scientifically valid theory that accounts for the profound effects of architecture—and spatial experience more generally—on epistemology.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Pericles’s Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852), Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.