In 1985, when I returned from fieldwork in South India, I discovered the work of Howard Stein. To my delight, I learned that he worked in Oklahoma City, my hometown. I used my next trip home to seek him out, and as I recall, we spent at least three hours together in our first conversation. We talked about Oklahoma, the

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oil business, and the relevance of place to identity—a host of issues that I had not realized could be interpreted in light of the psychodynamics of unconscious processes. Nothing I have written in the ensuing decades has escaped the continuing intellectual encounter with Howard. Interestingly, the two psychological anthropologists I consider most important to my work—Howard Stein and Richard Shweder—studied together as undergraduates at the University of Pittsburgh. But apparently, they only met many years later. I define my research as an attempt to synthesize their different (but complementary) approaches and apply the resulting framework to my fieldwork on South Indian divination and spirit-possession; Japanese nationalism; and (of course) the hidden dynamics of cultural identity in the state of Oklahoma.

Stein (1989) notes that boundaries define nations, not only in conventional terms but also as containers of both “positive” and “negative” identities. Aspects of national identity construed as negative are split off and projected onto other nations that become “good enough enemies” in so far as they implicitly accept the projection and act out the projected negative values. The classic example is the United States and the Soviet Union. The U.S. values both rugged individualism and communitarianism but finds these values impossible to reconcile in practice. The U.S.S.R., however, functioned as a receptacle for negative dependency values that Americans believed stood in contrast to their own positive individualistic orientation (Stein, 1989). Meanwhile, the Soviet Union took the value it assigned to individualism and projected it onto the United States, which acted out the Russian fantasy of the Cossack/cowboy nation unwilling to accept limitations on its tendency to act with careless abandon (Stein, 2012).

Polities exist in fixed locations and end up associating their positives identities with the homeland. But what if the nation delinks itself with location and chooses to identify itself not with sacred space and instead only with ideas? That kind of nation could be anywhere—or even nowhere, as in the case of “nations” that exist online with virtual memberships. The online entity that calls itself the Roman Republic, for example, exists only virtually, but it possesses a “citizen’s guide,” a “senate,” a comitia curiata (board of directors), sacerdotes (priests), and directions on how to participate in the online community. The absence of geography does not render the approach Stein takes inapplicable. On the contrary, ideological psychogeography assumes special prominence when physical

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location either ceases to exist or goes into temporary abeyance when a polity becomes displaced, either deliberately or by force of circumstance. This is what happened to the ancient city-state of Athens, once during the Persian Wars and again throughout the Peloponnesian War. In each case, the temporary delinking of geography with political ideal struck citizens as strange, even dangerous. But it worked. How does the psychogeographically defined polity understand itself when it abandons geography as the defining feature of its boundedness?

Here we are concerned with the polis (city-state of ancient Greece) of Athens, and how it temporarily underwent relocation from its traditional location. I refer, in the first instance, to the Athenian general, Themistocles (524 B.C.-459 B.C.), and his decision to abandon the city and relocate the population when facing invasion during the first Persian War. He did this to commit all of the men in the city to the fleet, upon which the defeat of the Persians depended. The powers of persuasion Themistocles possessed must have been considerable since never before had Athenians been asked to abandon the sacred precincts of their city.

Then, in 480 B.C., the women and children were dispatched to the southern city of Troezen, in the Peloponnesus. Themistocles wanted to lure the Persian fleet into the waters near the island of Salamis where geography would force both the Greeks and the Persians into a difficult-to-navigate spot. This was precisely the kind of sea battle at which the Athenians excelled. Still, not all of Athens’ allies agreed, and Themistocles had to threaten the citizens with the permanent abandonment of Athens and the relocation of the entire population to Sicily. The citizens finally conceded—a temporary move was preferable to a permanent relocation—and the Athenian navy engaged the Persians in the narrow straight of Salamis, destroying them. In the next year, 479 B.C., the Spartans led in the destruction of what was left of the Persian army in the battle of Plataea.

Throughout this history, Athens maintained itself in symbolic opposition to the Persian Empire, repeatedly calling attention to itself as a nation of free men and to the Persians as an empire of slaves. One would have thought that Themistocles had imperiled this contrast, especially when he used dictatorial authority to force the citizenry from its traditional location. After the Persian Wars, Themistocles was perceived as overly arrogant, a quality clearly at odds with the profound (male) egalitarianism that characterized the

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public image of the Athenian state. In 472 or 471 B.C., he was formally ostracized and went into exile. The Spartans saw a chance to destroy Themistocles, implicating him in the alleged treasonous plot of 478 B.C. of their own general, Pausanias. Themistocles fled Greece and took refuge with Alexander I of Macedon. He traveled to Asia Minor and served the Persian king Artaxerxes I (reigned 465-424 B.C.). Themistocles was appointed governor of Magnesia and lived there, a minor functionary in the Persian bureaucracy, for the rest of his life.

A generation later, a similar crisis occurred when Athens’ “First Citizen,” Pericles, concentrated the citizens outside the Acropolis and within the newly built “Long Walls” between the city and the port of Piraeus. The walls were meant to protect the population from invasion by Sparta at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. Given how much effort had been devoted to building the city between the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars, how could Athenians leave the Acropolis, home to their presiding goddess, Athena, and concentrate themselves miles away behind the newly built walls? The Spartans could not comprehend this tactic. They gave up trying to draw the Athenians out into battle and retreated to the Peloponnesus. Only later did they learn to put pressure on the Athenians full-time by doing something else that was altogether novel for a Greek city-state: establishing a permanent garrison close to the enemy city so that their hoplites could prosecute the war without interruption and at close range.

Contrarily, according to Thucydides, the early inhabitants of the city should be praised for having led a relatively settled existence, unlike other Greeks who remained, until more recently, in a primitive and nomadic condition. Yet, the Pericles quoted so admiringly by Thucydides defined Athens as a city that could exist anywhere; hence, there should be no difficulty, Pericles said, in abandoning the physical location if military exigencies required it. The Athenians, of course, had quit the city before during the Persian invasion and retreated en masse to the island of Salamis. There they awaited the none-too-certain victory of Themistocles and the Athenian navy over the Persians in the Saronic Gulf. If the faster and more navigable Athenian triremes had not defeated Xerxes, would the polis have remained permanently outside Attica? That is an intriguing possibility. Decades later, Pericles had no problem imagining such an outcome; indeed, when he commanded the residents of Attica to retreat within Athens’ long walls, he did

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not think they would object to abandoning their households. It was a short step from this to the idea of quitting Greece altogether, something Pericles’ immediate successors actually contemplated in a plan to move Athens to Italy and thereby avoid defeat by the Spartans.

Let us consider this point in more detail. At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles called the residents of Attica within the city walls. He denied that a Spartan invasion would have any effect, even if “the whole of Attica” were to be cut off. After all, they still controlled the port of Piraeus and with it access to the whole of the Athenian empire. He urged the Athenians to abandon their land and their houses, and focus instead on the empire and the navy. Thus they would “safeguard the sea and the city.” The threat of invasions, he said, would wrest no concessions from the Athenians. They need not be “slaves to their land.” Pericles used a daring comparison to describe his vision: “Consider this. If we were islanders, who would be harder to catch? We must now think like this as possible and abandon our land and our houses and safeguard the sea and the city, and not fight against the much greater numbers of the Peloponnesians because we are enraged… nor make lament over houses and land but over our lives” (Thucydides, 1998, p. 143).

If they followed Pericles, the Athenians would not be acting like other Greeks. The Periclean solution was without precedent, and the people had to be convinced that the polis could still exist unmoored from the Acropolis and its immediately surrounding area. The Athenians agreed to retreat within the city walls and to allow the Spartans to invade Attica at will. After all, the city still possessed its protected harbor, the Piraeus, and as long as this was true, the city could maintain command of the sea and its overseas resources, like the grain imported from present-day Ukraine.

Now, when I said “almost without precedent,” I had in mind the Persian War from more than half a century earlier. Then, too, the Athenians refused to be bound by geography. The citizens abandoned Athens when the Persians stormed the city. But later, from their island stronghold in the Saronic Gulf, they launched a naval operation that destroyed the Persian navy and forced the Persian army to retreat. Like Themistocles, Pericles believed that Athens was not limited to or defined by geography. The symbolic contrast to their archenemy, Sparta, did not depend on association with a specific place. Pericles recognized no land boundaries at all, for

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“Athens,” he asserted, was as extensive as the sea itself. One remembers a much later historical figure, Winston Churchill, who claimed in a speech before Parliament that Britain could even lose its “island home” as long as its colonial dependencies abroad carried on the fight. Why is the Athenian precedent important? For the first time, a Western power converted itself into an abstraction, and its leader essentially asserted that location is of only secondary importance. The state can be anywhere because it is not a place; it is an idea—an idea, in this case, based on the much-touted ideological differences to its supreme opposite, Sparta. The notion that ideas come first is, of course, what makes Periclean Athens similar to the small American communal societies (e.g., the Shaker villages) of the 19th century: self-sufficient completeness, framed in ideological terms, defines communal intentions in the first place.

Should we assume that the Periclean view, with its roots in Themistocles’ strategy, met with universal approbation? Hardly. After Pericles told the Athenians not to “lament over houses and land,” he said, “If I thought I could persuade you, I would urge you to go out yourselves and lay waste your houses and your land and show the Peloponnesians that you will not yield to them for the sake of these things” (Thucydides, 1998, p. 146). Thucydides shows us a Pericles who knew he could not persuade the Athenians, so he resorted to verbal trickery. If the Athenians would not abandon their houses and fields and remove their flocks and grains within the city walls, he would tell them not to take any action at all. Let the Spartans lay waste the land that they could not bring themselves to leave. Pericles knew this argument would rouse the citizens to action, and it did. Rather than abandon their property to the Spartans as booty, they took all they could inside the Long Walls.

Now, let me suggest a somewhat unusual comparison: Does the history of American communal societies in the 19th century offer us any insight into the movability of community? The answer is yes. The Rappites (the German followers of Pietistic preacher George Rapp) moved twice, first from Pennsylvania to Indiana, and then from Indiana back to Pennsylvania again, in search of the best place to establish their utopia. In the 1840s, the Oneida perfectionists started in Vermont. Their leader, John Humphrey Noyes, shifted location several times and eventually moved to Niagara Falls with a small contingent before the group completely dissolved. The best example, of course, was the Mormons, who established a series of communities, including Nauvoo, Illinois, and Salt Lake City,

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Utah. All were considered “Zion,” the holy place of the Lord’s chosen people, even though only one occupied “the center place” where God’s kingdom someday will be established: Independence, Missouri. Other American communities, like the Shakers, generally remained rooted in place. What is the difference between the movable and non-moving communities, or to put it more precisely, what do 19th century American utopian communities and ancient Athens have in common?

One is the presence of a charismatic leader. When he or she moved, the community also shifted location. The leader’s very act of moving served to intensify social bonds and confirm the leadership of the charismatic authority. It was the movement out of Nauvoo and west, over the plains, which confirmed Brigham Young as the Mormon’s leader and established the system of hierarchical control (then as now) important to the functioning of the Mormon community. In this respect, Brigham Young and Pericles are not unalike: Both recreated their communities as moveable, self-contained societies, the first after abandoning Illinois and the second after letting go of Attica.

As for the ancient Athenians, overseas trade and the extraction of tribute from dependencies proved successful, at least for several decades. All of these were innovations. But they engendered resentment, and often fear, among others, especially the Spartans. This proved to be expensive in the long run since the maintenance costs of divergence are always high. Sparta was considered the great conservative power in the Greek world—a city/state that had not changed in terms of its basic organizational structure in more than 200 years. When Sparta attacked Athens, therefore, it was seen by many—even by some in Athens itself—as an attempt to restrain radical innovations of a neighboring power addicted to novelty.

It was pointed out many years ago by Rosabeth Kanter (1974) that innovation in an experimental community cannot proceed too far; otherwise, it becomes impossible for the community to be tolerated by surrounding powers or populations. At the same time, reducing or eliminating novelty runs the risk of the community assimilating too much to the structures of the societies that surround it. This is a dilemma the Athenians faced, just as did the Shakers and Mormons centuries later. But Pericles did not see it that way; his definition of the polis was so radical that it effectively foreclosed debate on the question. A polis that can shift location,

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after all, is certainly no ordinary city-state, and it cannot be compared to one. This was the argument, Thucydides tells us, that appealed to Athenian pride—the pride of total uniqueness.

But what happens to a community, ancient or modern, when it loses its charismatic leader? Of the several factors identified as contributing to the decline of 19th century American intentional communities, the departure or death of the founder and the failure of succession rank fairly high. We see both in the decline of Athens. Pericles, the founder (in all but name) of the 5th century democratic polis, exercised unprecedented mastery over the city. His death during the great plague, in the second year of the war, resulted in near-chaos, and an ultimately fruitless search for a competent successor. That Athens never found such a replacement for its “First Citizen” accounts for many of the cataclysms that followed. Pericles only succeeded by practicing a form of charismatic authority formally at variance from the stated constitutional organization of the state—a state nominally democratic that nevertheless depended on rule by a self-described “tyrant” to function. Some of the Athenians were aware of this, and Thucydides, always dubious of democracy, considered it simply ironic. Pericles himself admits to it in the Funeral Oration: “For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe” (Thucydides, 1998, p. 136).

What we find in Athens toward the end of the war is a city dispirited, weak, and willing to abandon itself to oligarchic factions whose hidden design was to enlist the support of the Persians. It’s too simple to say that Pericles’ absence was to blame. After the failed attempt to invade Syracuse, Athens no longer possessed the means or even the desire to be radically different. Differences had become too expensive. There was, simply put, no way to pay for it: All the silver stored on the Acropolis had been exhausted, and the mines at Lauria (50 miles from Athens) could not be worked in the absence of sufficient slave manpower late in the war.

It was also a matter of a loss of confidence. Athens had become exhausted with democracy. Democratic innovation was supportable as long as there was a dictator, Pericles, to preserve it. Once he was gone, competition set in among his would-be successors, and only one, the mercurial Alcibiades, ever came close to filling the great statesman’s shoes (and even then only very briefly). In a sense, Athens slipped out of fully conscious intentionality—its desire to be different from every other city-state—and became just

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like all the others, driven by intrigue and repeated failures of leadership. In doing so, the city established a critical precedent for the contradictions of democracy that we witness today in the populist statecrafts of modernity.

Stein frequently points to such dilemmas. The attempt to preserve American democracy comes at the cost of adopting increasingly authoritarian measures. The solution to the problem, in other words, becomes the problem, in a long series of dialectical transformations that keep opposing values locked in tension with each other. Or take American alcoholism: The compulsion to act out the American value of rugged individualism expresses itself in the behavior of the drunk. The person becomes a cynosure, usually just to the extent that his role (as “drunk”) stipulates that he should act disruptively and without concern for social convention. Again, the “problem”— how can extreme individualism manifest itself for everyone to see—is the “solution” offered by the role itself. That is why, Stein suggests, alcoholism in the United States is never going to end.

This, I suggest, is one of the most important lessons Stein offers: the admonition not to seek purported solutions, such as alcoholism treatment, as an answer to a problem that remains hidden. In this case, the hidden problem is the American dialectic that pits two cherished values—independence and interdependence—against each other. Alcoholism is only a symptom. No one can predict if the dialectic in American values will continue or undergo radical change. The open-endedness of the dynamic is what should remind us of Max Weber (1958), who writes: “No one knows who will live in this cage in the future or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-important” (p. 182).

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  • Stein, Howard (2012). Developmental time, cultural space. Library of Social Science.
  • Stein, Howard (1989). The influence of psychogeography upon the conduct of international relations: Clinical and metapsychological considerations. In H. Stein and W. Niederland (Eds.), Maps from the mind. University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Weber, Max (1958). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Scribner.
  • Thucydides (1998). In R. Strassler (Ed.), The landmark Thucydides: A comprehensive guide to the Peloponnesian War. Touchstone.


Charles W. Nuckolls

Charles W. Nuckolls, PhD, is professor and former chair in the Department of Anthropology at Brigham Young University. He received his AB in 1979 from the University of Chicago; his MA in 1980 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and his PhD in 1987 from the University of Chicago. In 1989, he won the Stirling Award for Contributions to Psychological Anthropology. Among his works are Siblings in South Asia: Brothers and Sisters in the Context of Culture (1993), The Cultural Dialectics of Knowledge and Desire (1996), and Culture: A Problem that Cannot Be Solved (1998). He can be reached at

How to Cite This:

Nuckolls, C. W. (2022). The temporary eclipse of place in Ancient Athens. In D. R. Beisel, P. H. Elovitz, & N. D’Andria (Eds.), Howard Stein Festschrift. Clio’s Psyche, 29(1), 85-94.

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