A text as ambitious as Malvezzi’s The Archetype of Wisdom provides a particularly challenging subject for review – precisely because of the wide aim and reach of this project. Far from considering the ambition of this work pejoratively, my intentions in this review are to make explicit the way in which Malvezzi’s text opens (or at least attempts to open) space for a philosophical project of much greater length. The text itself, standing at roughly 100 pages (omitting the use of illustrative plates) is very short, especially when this length is considered alongside the breadth of Malvezzi’s interest. Indeed, he acknowledges this explicitly when he states that the work’s wide angle makes impossible a certain level of comprehensively (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 15). It is therefore my view that The Archetype of Wisdom should be read as a kind of philosophical manifesto – as the extended opening remarks of a much larger philosophical project. As such, my review seeks to bring out the key components of Malvezzi’s position in light of the project this work seeming precipitates. Given the breadth of his project, it is perhaps understandable and forgivable that Malvezzi does not always tease out the full conclusions of many of the comparative claims he makes within his work. This review shall draw out these claims, particularly attending to the similarities and difference between Malvezzi’s project and Husserl’s phenomenology, as well as to how orientation figures within his work.
The Archetype of Wisdom is a bold unification of several distinct areas of scholarship. Not only is it a work of phenomenological philosophy, but it is explicitly concerned with classical architecture, and philosophy of religion – with the latter’s role in the text specifically concerned with questions of cosmology and metaphysics. Given its classical subject matter, the text raises further questions pertinent to history and archaeology – though these concerns are largely outside of my field of expertise, so shall not be central to my appraisal of this work. Malvezzi makes explicit that his primary concern throughout the text is with the spatial metaphysics of Greek spiritual thought, specifically with their conceptualisations of the relationship between what is considered human and divine. To paraphrase this, we could suggest that Malvezzi’s concern is with the constitutive relationship between practices of worship – with their explicit concern, in the Greek context, with wisdom – and the embodiment of these practices within physical space. In order to understand this, he insists, we must begin with the spaces within which this relationship was placed and enacted: the Greek temple. Yet no sooner than this project has established its central concern as architectural, it immediately problematises this notion, at once insisting that we must understand the temple as constituted both by its architecture and by the lived experiences of the Greeks. Through his early invocation of Schulz’s observation that “temples are regarded as “individual concretizations of fundamental existential situations””(Malvezzi, 2018, p. 14), Malvezzi’s project comes to rest its interests on the site of worship as a phenomenologically constructed space. The primary implication here is that Malvezzi’s project is concerned with how the Greek temple is a site wherein meaning and significance are constructed, mobilised, and proliferated – that the temple should be understood as the staging ground for particular religious practices that are primarily concerned with phenomenological experience. We are thereby implored to reject any understanding of the temple as a static system, as a fixed concretisation of some transcendent divine power, but as a site wherein and upon which “the changing conditions of life from all around are unceasingly acting” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 74). It is on these grounds that he presents his work as applied phenomenology. In so far as the temple itself represents the divine (and, for Malvezzi, on some level it clearly does) Malvezzi’s approach encourages us to consider the temple as an experience, which is to say in relation to those that use the site. As such, Malvezzi’s work foregrounds the relational aspects of the temple and the divine to human experience.
Perhaps the most overt point of continuity between Malvezzi’s project and the standard canon of phenomenology is his invocation of the term erlebnis. One of the central terms deployed with Husserlian phenomenology, erlebnis is experience in and of itself – the product of his specific schema of philosophical reduction (Husserl, 1982). The direct parallel within the context of the Greeks is the stress placed on the role played by pre-rational elements of thought when considering the wider, universal existential structure embodied within the temple (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 14). Though some of us may be sceptical of this division between pre-rational experience and cognition, the Greeks – according to Malvezzi – mirror Husserl quite closely when they suggest that the point of their project is to investigate universal structures. Yet within this similarity is the implicit, yet stark, distinction between the erlebnis of Husserl and the erlebnis of the Greeks: the latter has an explicitly existential concern. As aforementioned, Malvezzi’s project is – at least in part – a work of the philosophy of religion, at least in so far as the focus on Greek life is within the conceptual framework of religious metaphysics. Taken together, these elements frame The Archetype of Wisdom as attempting to provide a phenomenological account of Greek religious experience, yet precisely what this project reveals is that these experiences express a clear existential attitude of humanity’s relationship to the divine.
This deep link between existential erlbenis and the Greek religious experience of the divine is further explored within Malvezzi’s brief treatment of other aspects of Greek architecture (loosely conceived). He speaks of monumental statues, those that depict mortals and Gods, represented in the like form of the human being. Their prevalence, for Malvezzi, speaks to the true object of reflection for Greek thought: “man himself” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 53). For any concern the Greeks may have had with a transcendent divine, the transcendent becomes intimately connected to human experience – it works to ground the divine whilst also working to unground the everyday. In his consideration of these statues, Malvezzi focuses on the prevalent pose many of these monuments took — depicting the figure as taking a step forwards (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 53). For Malvezzi, this is not to be read as a mere hint at movement, but instead allows us to read this statues as having intermediate dimensionality, as neither rooted nor moving, and this challenges the very idea of human stability. This becomes implicitly existential for Malvezzi, specifically in so far as it comes to challenge the advice of Tirtaeus: that one should “have both feet planted on the ground” (Malvezzi, 2018, pp. 53–4). This picture of the fundamental existential condition as one of rootedness is thereby overcome by a new image: that of a youth looking at the world around him and attempting to find his path (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 54). Though Malvezzi does not explicitly illuminate this as an existential dimension to his work, it is explicitly concerned with action. To extend Malvezzi’s reading of this example, we can regard the intermediary status of man — as expressed through the statue — as core to his reading of the Greek’s as phenomenologically oriented, for the youth is attentively considering the relationship between the world as he experiences it and his action. Though Malvezzi does not use the term, I think it useful to consider this image in terms of the language of orientation, specifically in the phenomenological sense explicated within Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology (Ahmed, 2006). Upon this reading, we can see Malvezzi present us with a reading of Greek architecture as furnishing us with a series of anchors upon which their philosophical practice hangs, with statues and temples acting as both sites of practice but further as points of reference, through which the Greek individual could find their orientation.
This notion of orientation, specifically as part of a process of disorientation and reorientation, becomes more overt (though is never actively avowed), within the Greek sense of the divine as Malvezzi explicates it. Importantly, his reading stresses that for the Greeks wisdom is rooted in experience itself, not upon the accumulation of information (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 54). Again, we can see the clear link to Husserl’s project – in so far as the investigation concerns experience rather than specific objects of knowledge – but also, I hope, a clear point of divergence: the Greeks do not present this as a project with an end, their practice is innately sceptical of the codification of this experience. Greek spiritual practice never overcame the need for novelty, it cannot be codified precisely because this codification would be its end (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 79). This scepticism, on Malvezzi’s reading, is foundational within the very building of the temple itself, for the temple was to act as a site of provocation, as a reminder of the ‘divine experience’ at the root of Greek wisdom (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 13). Indeed, the temple itself is as far as the Greeks can go in terms of codification, for the temple is an approximation and a reminder of the divine experience itself, an experience that – being pre-rational – cannot be clearly expressed within language, and thus resists standard forms of philosophical codification (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 66). Expressed more succinctly – the temple itself is the best codification of this experience. Attempts at the rationalisation of this experience must, at least on Malvezzi’s account, be considered definitively as moving away from the experience itself. Whereas we may read Husserl as seeking what can be codified within experience, what rational structures we can tease out of the experience itself, Malvezzi’s account of Greek divine experience resists this kind of determination.
This is precisely expressed within the division between the two worlds: mortal and divine. The former is primarily characterised by peras, by ephemerality (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 31). The mortal world is limited and determined, it is the realm of what dies. Conversely, the divine is characterised as apeiron, as that which cannot undergo any kind of determination (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 32). The world of mortals is limited just as the world of the divine is infinite. Understanding divine experience in this way, we must read Malvezzi’s as strongly differentiating between this experience and attempts at codification through rational thinking. Divine experience – being so limitless – challenges the limits of everyday life and thus cannot be approximated to them. We must recall that divine experience is fundamentally pre-rational for Malvezzi, and it cannot be rationalised without the experience itself becoming essentially changed.
Indeed, the opposition between rationalisation and the divine is most keenly expressed within Malvezzi’s treatment of chaos, which is considered as “unknown divinity” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 34). Malvezzi appears to suggest a certain temporal structure to one’s relationship with the divine, as one at first encounters the divine as an unknown. One’s initial experience of the divine is presented in terms of unveiling – as aletheia — wherein the mind is opened to truth (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 37). Malvezzi expresses this by drawing on Hesiod’s account of the genesis of the divine: “at first Chaos came to be” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 34). Hesiod presents this as a mythological account, as a creation myth for the Grecian pantheon. Malvezzi understands this as a part of the phenomenological process. Chaos is a logical opening, it is at once aletheia and epoche – it is the collapse of one’s preconceived ideas. But this collapse is an exposure to truth, not as a series of universal structures of thought or propositions about reality, but as a direct experience of harmonia. If we are to experience harmony – the divine truth, “an underground weaving from which everything can rise and vanish” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 35) – we must first experience chaos. Both are core aspects of the divine experience. For Malvezzi, divine experience is at once terror and beauty.
To best explicate Malvezzi’s view, I return to the notion of orientation. How he presents the phenomenology of the divine appears to follow a movement from orientation to disorientation, a movement engendered by the chaotic component of divine experience. Having passed through chaos, we arrive at harmony, we move from disorientation to reorientation. This reorientation is not a return to one’s original perspective, but a transformation of one’s relationship with the world. This new relationship is rooted in understanding, not as rationalisation, but as facing the divine substratum – as rootedness in one’s phenomenological experience of the divine (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 37). The movement to reorientation is the taking up of a divine orientation, the availability of which depends directly upon this experience. But this experience is transitory, its impression fades and we return to our original, everday orientation – and this precipitates a need to return to the temple, to relive our encounter with the divine. We must once again pass through chaos to reach harmony. Malvezzi does not provide an extended treatment of orientation in this way, though he does mention the concept in connection with Prometheus, who “showed men what to see and hear in order to get oriented” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 48). This is to say that Prometheus provides us with a shift in perception through revealing a fundamentally element of the world: fire. Through extending this metaphor of orientation, I have attempted to more clearly demonstrate Malvezzi’s position and its implications.
I regard Malvezzi’s project as heavily relying upon these notions of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation even if these are rarely avowed. Indeed, his project appears to suggest that the distance between the mortal and divine worlds is a precisely the distance between two forms of orientation. To be situated in one world or the other is a matter of one’s attitude, as to whether or not one is oriented towards the divine substratum or merely to the surface appearance. This is not to suggest that Malvezzi regards the surface as superficial in such a way as to dismiss it. Instead, the suggestion is that the Grecian model implies that the surface can only attain its full relevance and meaning through an appreciation of its divine support (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 37).
Indeed, the fundamental distinction between the mortal and divine worlds becomes blurred in his discussion of Ananke. As a Goddess, Ananke is the divine personification of fate – she is at once a divine being and a constraint on divinity itself, for not even Gods fight Ananke (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 47). As a figure, Ananke comes to represent a divine limitation, she is at once apeiron and peras – blurring the distinctions between the divine and mortal worlds. The blurring of this distinction enables man to understand the divine through a new form of codification. For Malvezzi, Ananke is thus the possibility of accumulating knowledge about the divine, for her status is precisely that of a boundary. Accordingly, it is through her that we move from the fluidity of the divine to the solidity of the Gods – aspects of the divine personified and settled into entities. Malvezzi considers Ananke – and what is made possible through her – to be an advancement in the ontological status of the human being (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 48). By allowing the divine to settle into human shapes, mankind is given a framework through which they can conceptualise their relationship to the divine in a clear manner. A mythos is born and settled. The pre-rational experience is given a multitude of faces to facilitate its encounter with humanity.
But though the Gods are a result of this experience, though they are a codification of this experience into a more ready-to-hand framework of understanding, the Gods exist to be transcended. The very reason that the Greeks can afford not to resist the codification of the divine experience into Gods and yet could not afford to allow this experience to be claimed by reason is precisely because the Gods can point us back to the originary experience in a way that reason cannot. This is to say that rationalisation pulls us directly away from the divine experience, it leads us only into abstraction. As a form of codification, rationalisation keeps the experience itself at bay. The Gods, however, like the temples in which they are spatially located, become sites of experience in and of themselves. This is to suggest that the Gods return us to the divine experience, that they enable us to experience harmony.
On Malvezzi’s account, the Gods thus become vehicles for experiencing the divine, which at once return us to this experience of chaos and then harmony, but which also foreground a human element of this harmony. This is fundamentally why the Gods are concerned with wisdom, not because they provide codified doctrines of teachings, but because each of them provides human beings with access to wisdom. Wisdom, on Malvezzi’s account, is the phenomenological experience of, and ability to interact with, the invisible harmony of the world. Wisdom fundamentally depends upon this phenomenological experience, which in turn depends upon the conditions embodied within the temple and its Gods. As such, it would be appropriate to extend Malvezzi’s use of architecture to suggest that temples and their Gods are themselves the architecture of wisdom, as well as the archetype.
To extend Malvezzi’s project into the claim that the Gods serve as an architecture of wisdom is to foreground the temple as a catalyst for a phenomenological encounter with the divine. Malvezzi’s project has a strong historical thread through which he provides a reading of the origins and development of the Greek temple. Though I provide a summary of his account here, this subject is beyond my specialism and thus I am in no position to appraise it. Malvezzi’s history begins with the tѐmenoi, the “cut out lands” (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 19) that serve as the predecessor’s to the Grecian temple structure. These were sites of worship in the open air, closed off spaces that were dedicated to a God – sacred spaces surrounding an altar. Such spaces are closed off in the sense that they are set apart from the corresponding outside: the mortal world. The structure of the tѐmenoi as closed off establishes the sanctity of these spaces as grounded in a shift away from everyday life. Central to this shift is that the tѐmenoi served as thresholds between civilisation and the natural world. Indeed, the location of these were not considered as accidental or as part of civic planning – but as chosen by the Gods. What marked these locations as chosen were their natural features, and thus we can see the roots of the temenoi and the divine within the natural world. Malvezzi notes that for the Greeks, nature was not to be regarded as a “dead”, for nature was alive (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 21). What this means philosophically is the suggestion that for the Greeks, nature was more than a factic state of affairs, not merely a collection of creatures and plants to be regarded merely as resources, but that the Greek spiritual life has its origins within the divinity of nature. Due to its association with the divine, however, it is unsurprising that the natural world was considered as distinct from the mortal world: from the civilised world of the polis. Malvezzi’s therefore regards the temenoi as sanctuaries that sat at the margins of the polis, marking the physical and psychological thresholds between civilisation and nature (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 22), between the known and the unknown, between the mortal and the divine.
Therefore, Malvezzi’s proposes that the general structure of the temple is that it constitutes an interstice between the two worlds – but this is not to suggest that each temple is identical. Malvezzi stresses the observations of other scholars who suggest that temples are each unique, that their construction cannot be entirely reduced to a singular schema (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 65). Despite this, Malvezzi asserts that there is a clear commonality upon which we can comment, and this is the use of light within the temple (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 70). His treatment of the phenomenological experience of the temple comes to focus on the act of entering the temple and approaching the altar. Typically, the temple would have a single entrance, acting as the sole aperture through which light could enter the building. As this entrance was at the opposite end of the building to the altar and the God – herein represented as a statue – the procession towards the architectural representation of the divine would have been a walk into gradually intensifying darkness (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 80). One’s entry into the space was occasioned by the placement of the columns, which would again come to divide the internal sections of the building. Importantly for Malvezzi, the placement of these columns deliberated evoked a sense of a permeable boundary (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 69), crossed by the worshipper entering the holy site. Due to the single entrance, Malvezzi describes the temple as a prism, diffracting not only light, but also reality (Malvezzi, 2018, p. 70).
This image of worship amounts to what I regard to be Malvezzi’s most original claim within this project: that the temple demonstrates how the act and practice of worship was itself implicitly spatial for the Greeks. The temple is a space that one moves through, it is a path out of the mortal world and into the divine, a sojourn of discovery. The sculpted stones of the temple were regarded as living, as imbued with soul through the art of construction – all united within the secret recipe for arousing a sense of the divine (Malvezzi, 2018, pp. 76, 81). It is for these reasons that Malvezzi speaks of the temple as grounded within a human hope that it was possible for all men to have this experience.
The Archetype of Wisdom is an ambitious project, drawing on resources from myriad disciplines across the academy. As a synthesis of these perspectives, Malvezzi’s work provides a compelling suggestion as to how we can productively read the Greek temple, as to how these sacred spaces can provide us with testimonies about Grecian practice, experience, and cosmology. Philosophically, Malvezzi draws several productive connections between Greek practice and later works of phenomenology – especially in his treatment of erlebnis and, in my suggestion, his implicit comments on orientation. Though I consider the text to provide a convincing demonstration as to the utility of pursuing a phenomenology of the classics, it remains limited in the amount it can achieve given its relatively short length. On these grounds, I consider The Archetype of Wisdom as a proposal for additional work – a proposal that implicitly calls for a collaborative effort across those disciplines with which it interfaces. In particular, it would be productive to consider this project alongside archaeology, which is mentioned somewhat sparingly in the text. Finally, another element that is somewhat absent from this text is a consideration of the temple as a political site, thus any further work within this area may wish to consider what contribution could be made by political philosophy. None of these omissions are damning to the central thesis of the text – but each could be addressed in whatever projects Malvezzi’s work precipitates.
Ahmed, S., 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press, Durham.
Husserl, E., 1982. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy – First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology. Nijhof, The Hague.
Malvezzi, R., 2018. The Archetype of Wisdom: A Phenomenological Review of the Greek Temple. Mimesis International, Milan-Udine.
 Malvezzi does not expand upon any connections between his use of this term and its place within the work of Heidegger. This may be another fruitful comparison for any future work.