For more than two thousand years the Parthenon has stood atop the Acropolis, an enduring monument to the imagination and craft of humankind and to the complex civilization that gave it birth.
Artfully placed against the backdrop of two dramatic mountains, on a large stone outcrop 500 feet above the Aegean’s Saronic Gulf, it was purposefully built at an angle to the entrance gate so that you see it first not head on but in perspective, the columns receding in order and harmony, their delicately fluted lines etching a series of shadows in the Attic light against the bright, creamy stone. As you approach, the temple seems almost to float, massive and assertive though it is, for it rests on a slight hill and it was crafted without any true verticals whatsoever, the columns bending inward from base to capital with infinite subtlety and precision, the flutes so carefully measured that each one had to be carved individually like a jewel, the whole effect pulling the eye imperceptibly upward. It asserts, directly though not stridently, the glory that was Greece, or more properly Athens.
Close to, the human measure is pronounced in the building’s decorations and relationships. The exterior sculptures, at least in original form though many have decayed, display an extraordinary concern for the varieties of the human form, in motion and at rest, clothed and naked, while the friezes of the Panathenaic procession convey the energy and centrality of the workaday civic life of the city below. Within, the sense of the human measure is again reflected in the dimensions of the columns and remnant forms, and the rational, humanistic spirit that originally informed it is unmistakable still.
Indeed, for all its outsized grandeur and magnitude, it is a building carefully, gracefully, designed on the human scale, measured by the human thumb and pace and body, created in its every detail with the principle, to be articulated by Protagoras only a few decades later, of “man the measure of all things.” The height of the average Greek man, known to br shorter than a modern European, I have calculated to be about 5 feet 7½ inches, a figure confirmed by the fact that, allowing for minuscule variations in the original construction and in the settlement of the building over the years, it is in exact multiples of that measure that the major dimensions were built: the full height is 540.12 inches, that unit by 8, the width is 1215.3 inches, that unit by 18, and the length is 2734.3 inches, that unit by 40.5. . It is a monument to the human scale, only natural in a land whose cities were ordered according to the human scale, whose society, economic relations, and government were all constructed with regard to the human scale.
To architects a model, to archeologists a treasure, to classicists a palimpsest, to historians a time chamber, to humanists an inspiration, the Parthenon has no equal, on any continent, from any age. “Earth proudly wears the Parthenon,” Emerson wrote, “as the best gem upon her zone.” It has been the object of pilgrimages for many peoples of the world, but for the West it is even more: the seat of the civilization that has done more than any other to shape our own, our arts and sciences, our politics and governments, our culture and our most basic perceptions of the world. During the course of twenty-four centuries—longer than any single civilization has lasted since the dawn of time—the Parthenon has stood as the embodiment of our heritage. It has suffered much, to be sure, in the course of human warfare and human greed, but it had always endured, always seemed to be possessed, as Plutarch had written, of “a living and incorruptible breath, a spirit impervious to age.”
Not exactly impervious. Over the centuries it has been looted and damaged by various hands, but the worst were those of Lord Elgin in the 19th century, who removed sculptures from the entire building, including about 60 percent of the iconic friezes, and sent them to England, where they still reside. But it took the twentieth century to begin its nearly final collapse, through the poison of pollution, particularly acid rain from the ubiquitous automobiles of Athens (producing some 5,000 pounds of sulfuric acid a day) and the coal-burning electrical plants and factories (contributing 2,000 tons), literally melting the marble stones of the Parthenon. By the 1970s the faces of relief sculptures along the metopes had begun to erode and some hands and arms and horses’ legs were missing, the sculptures were becoming indistinguishable blobs, the columnar flutes were fading, and finally the scholars and authorities associated with the Acropolis realized that something had to be done. In the words of the director general of UNESCO, called in to try to rescue the Attic buildings, “After resisting the onslaughts of weather and human assailants for 2,400 years, this magnificent monument is threatened with destruction as a result of the damage which industrial civilization has increasingly inflicted on it.”
For 25 years, experts of all kinds from all around the world worked to protect, restore, and preserve what was left of the Parthenon, and what they finally decided to do was open a new $165 million Acropolis Museum in 2008—a giant modern building, only 300 yards down the Acropolis, that has been said to look like a parking garage. Much of the Parthenon itself was in effect taken apart and put back together, with titanium bars and ties to strengthen the marble blocks, new marble used to patch holes and replace chips, and the blocks and columns have been cleaned by laser beams of infrared and ultraviolet rays. No one is allowed to go close to the columns or go inside the building, however, because foot traffic of 6 million tourists a year was jarring the floor and wearing deep paths across it; visitors are made to stay behind barriers 25 feet away and forbidden to experience the interior as the original Greeks would have. All the remaining frieze sculptures were removed, taken into the museum and installed on a replica of the metopes, and replaced by copies made of what is called “artificial stone” ; together with free-standing sculptures, the museum now houses nearly 4,000 pieces of original art, the Parthenon above displays copies.
As a genuine artifact of Hellenic civilization, the Parthenon ellenic civilization is no more. What remains after the ravages of the modern world is a genuine artifact of industrial civilization. The monument that was, the shrine that even in its imperfect shape excited centuries, will never exist again, and at best the restorers can transform the temple into a kind of picture postcard, its sculptures no more than “authentic reproductions,” as the museum world’s contradiction has it, its interior barred to public experience. Pilgrimages have not been made these many centuries so that the inheritors of the classic Greeks could stand off in mid-distance and gaze at the wonders of artificial stone.
Nor is this awesome devastation confined to the Parthenon, or Greece, or Europe. The monuments of the world’s civilization in almost every country are being degraded and obliterated by the misfortune of being located in a modern industrial car-polluted city, in the path of acid rain or other air-borne pollutants, or in the middle of wars and rebellions. UNESCO originally identified some 500 important buildings throughout the world in peril in 1976, and subsequently has produced a list of World Heritage Sites every year where some kind of danger and destruction is going on, standing at 779 in 2015. In some cases the monuments are undergoing processes of protection or reproduction, but all those are expensive, makeshift, and ultimately futile fingers in dykes: industrial civilization, overbuilt, overextended, and overpowerful, feeds on the human imperilment of the earth, its resources and species, heedless of the ruination in its wake and powerless to cease or even control its calamitous pace.
But the Parthenon stands out for two reasons.
First, as a fitting symbol of Western civilization, it acts as a symbol of the crisis to which that civilization has come. This is not some temporary aberration but rather a fixed condition, and it cannot be stopped even if ameliorated here and there by the devices of modern technology, which almost always bring along additional problems of their own. I am tempted to say that it is too late to try to bring a halt to this, even if we had the perception and the will to change our priorities, rethink our values, reorganize our systems, and abandon the false gods of the seven deadly sins. But if it is not, our only hope would be to reorder and rework our habitats and environments, our lives and civilizations, along such lines as the original Parthenon would suggest, a building built on the principles of the human scale. Or, if that call is not heeded to and the collapse is inescapable, then I would suggest that it will be only following the human scale will any successful human society be rebuilt and regenerated after that collapse.
And second, unlike the peoples of the preceding empires—Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Assyria, Egypt—the Greeks did not worship omnipotent gods, did not serve almighty kings, did not cluster themselves into faceless urban multitudes. They evolved, for the first time, philosophies and organizations built on the quite remarkable notion of the free-born citizen, an individual with an inalienable equality within the community or polis, who was expected to participate in its arts, sciences, athletics, politics, discourses, and games not only for the betterment of the self but for that of the entire population.
In Athens, daily life evidenced that human principle. In the agora, the public square that was at once the marketplace and the meeting place, there would be an amorphous and spontaneous movement of people and goods and ideas from dawn to sunset, a social axis on which the rest of the city’s life spun. In the ecclesia, the democratic assembly of the citizens, the free men (though not, alas, women) would meet to formulate the decisions of the community on the principles of open participation and individual right, and the offices of the city would be held by various of them chosen by lot throughout the year. In the sports-grounds and parks and at the periodic games and dances, the human body would be celebrated with an almost pagan zeal, and at the schools and gymnasia a similar passion, at least among those who had the leisure, was devoted to the development of the human mind—mens sana in corpore sana, as the Romans would later say. And though there would be toil for many, Athenian life was meant, and the day was organized, as much as possible for the individual’s intellectual, aesthetic, sexual, social, and civic satisfaction.
In short, Athens was, in the words of the great urban historian Lewis Mumford, a city “cut closer to the human measure.”
If we as a civilization have any future at all—and many are uncertain we have—it will be reconstructing our societies to that human measure.