Acropolis - ruins that restore us

The same day the postcard arrived from Athens - ''Hello everybody! Paid obligatory visit to Acropolis . . .'' - the news story broke: ''Parthenon Restoration Won't Need Scaffolding.''

To make a 2,500-year story short, the rusted iron clamps holding together the blocks in the columns of the temple are being replaced by clamps of noncor-roding titanium.

Meanwhile, the caryatids, the six stone maidens supporting a porch of the neighboring Erectheum temple since the 5th century BC, have been relieved of their duty by replicas. The originals, eaten away by acid rain, will go on display in a nitrogen-filled museum case.

Corroded clamps! Eroded statues! Sometimes it seems that it takes all the 20 th-century know-how everybody can manage just to protect the 20th century from itself.

More than $2.3 million has been spent on the Acropolis in the past six years to repair the ravages of industrial pollution - and to save the site from the wear and tear of up to 10,000 tourists daily, who, like our postcard correspondent, travel with a certain urgency to ''do'' the ''glory that was Greece'' while it still survives us all.

But there's more to the battle among the ruins of this sublime hill than just classical art vs. latter day smog. A clash of attitudes is being played out here too, identified early in this century by a French art historian named Reinach, who wrote of the Acropolis: ''Agitated and feverish generations see in it the highest expression of the quality they most lack, that serenity which is not apathy, but . . . equanimity.''

We, the ever-more agitated, visit Chartres and Notre Dame and marvel at those very literal Gothic angels that fly far beyond the bounds of what moderns experience as Faith. But then we visit the Acropolis and witness the absolute summit of Reason, and the distance between the Greeks and us looms as even more of a shock. For Faith, we assume, is bound to change shape. But does not Reason, by definition, remain the same today as yesterday?

Not for an American in Athens. Harmony - that word so remote from our own public experience - positively radiates from the Acropolis, even in a tourist's postcard, rebuking the discontinuity and fragmentation of subsequent centuries. How did these few thousand Athenians of 2,500 years ago arrive at the elegant simplicity of this gesture in stone? Where did they discover in themselves the gift of wholeness, so that the smallest frieze was carved in perfect proportion to itself, to the building it decorated, and even to the other buildings of the Acropolis?

In fact, not one column of the Parthenon is quite perpendicular. Not one is precisely parallel to its neighbor. Heights vary. Yet how these stones live - if ever stones could live, like frozen dancers to unheard music.

But the serenity, the harmony - the vital intensity held in vital balance - is finally seen most movingly in the faces of those statues. Chipped and pitted, the countenances still glow with what one admirer has called ''luminous, unruffled calm.''

Historians debate the religious seriousness of Phidias, the sculptor, and of Pericles, the politician behind him - and indeed of all the ancient Greeks. No matter. That ''luminous, unruffled calm'' - that inner light - persuades a 20 th-century viewer that Reason in this case almost reached the pitch of Faith. How else explain the faces that achieve the serenity of a Gothic angel?

One observer has described them as ''the human face liberated from all fear of destiny.''

Yet his is not the serenity of a Buddha smile, stretched in other-worldly detachment. The Greeks, as they kept reminding themselves, lived lives of considerable intensity, often balancing Reason on the edge of Dionysian madness.

It is as if they passed through the hottest part of the fire in order to find their sanctuary of consummate calm.

The newspaper reporting the restoration plans for the Parthenon, on page 25, carried unserene stories on the front page about war in El Salvador and Lebanon and Chad. How can we be expected to be calm?

But serenity, harmony were only a little less subject to the abrasions of history in the 5th century BC. The Parthenon was started just after the Persian war ended, and barely completed when the Peloponnesian war broke out in 408 B.C.

It may be consoling to imagine we could be serene, if only we could find the right tropical island, or inherit a bundle of money. But as the Greek philosophers at the foot of the Acropolis kept pointing out, this is the sort of deception that prevents people from being serene in the first place.

Somewhere Socrates must be smiling his sly encouragement as the tourists poke for the secret among the ruins.

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