From Agon to Agonistics

Conference 10-11 September 2021, London UK (online)

5 – 8.30 pm BST each evening = zoom details FOLLOW closer to the time.

See abstracts and speaker biographies below the rationale.

‘Agon’ is a cultural trope – in Jungian parlance, perhaps it may be classified as an archetype – a figure with perpetual and universal application, if perhaps only fully codified in ways we recognise from ancient Athenian culture.

The word has many connotations. For instance, it is a rule-based ‘conflict’ applied to sports contests, and then eventually entering the public square in bouts of dialogical logic and ‘controlled’ affray, carefully orchestrated toward persuasive ends. ‘Agon’ also applies to Greek theatre, whose action is constructed around protagonists in dramatic conflict moving toward resolution.

As in the theatre, the ‘agon’ might well result in transformation. Even Heracles, founder of the Olympics, had to succeed in certain agones and suffer psychic turbulence and distress before becoming immortal. Such is the ‘agony’ of the ‘win’.

In the conference, we will broaden this word’s meaning out to include what Chantal Mouffe talks of as ‘agonistic pluralism’ as a better model than ‘deliberative democracy’ for political action. Could that be close to what ancient democracies, especially Athenians, engaged with in their public forums? These athletics, dramas, and political assemblage were also spaces and times of contested commercial, criminal, and character assessment – with neighbours and foreigners in their midst.

Depth psychologists: from Freud, Jung, Lacan, Klein, Winnicott and relational psychology, as several schools consider these issues – bringing dialectical or compensatory (in Jung’s case) contestation right into the personality as foundational: the psyche is a space of combative inclinations with biological and cultural constraints or adjustments in play.

Rhetorical tropes/figures – metaphor, elenchus and epideictic – not only enable such exchanges, but constitute them.

‘From agon to agonistics’ will be a place to explore these human encounters through a creative dialogue between classical Greek culture and modern depth psychologies.


Leslie Gardner ( or

Richard Seaford (University of Exeter), Paul Bishop (University of Glasgow), Maria Chriti (Aristotle University of Thessaloniki), Kurt Lampe (Bristol University)

Co-endorsed by Dept Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex and IAJS (International Association of Jungian Studies)

Set out in running order


10th September

Richard Seaford

The Agon of Everyday Life in Ancient Greece
Richard Seaford,

Fundamental to Greek culture from the archaic period onwards was the idea of the unity of conflicting opposites, notably in philosophy (especially Herakleitos), visual art, athletic contests, and tragedy. In this respect Greece was unique. It can be shown, surprisingly, that an important factor in this uniqueness was something that we take for granted to such an extent that we are no more aware of its specific form than fish are of water: I mean commercial exchange.
Commercial exchange is a peaceful agreement between exchangers whose interests are absolutely opposed (in a zero sum game): a perfect unity of conflicting opposites. Greece was unique in that this form of the allocation of goods (as opposed to older forms such as redistribution and reciporocity) became the everyday norm. The idea of the unity of opposites is not given by nature or by intellectual reflection. It arises from the development of the fundamental and universal realititesof everyday life.

David Henderson 

The Tragedy of Analysis In this paper I will explore the tragic dimension of the psychoanalytic relationship. Psychoanalysis has many concepts and terms to describe the contest that takes place between the analyst and the patient or between contending forces within the minds and psyches of the analyst and patient. Transference and countertransference to the extent that they are conceived to be relational imply an element of combat or conflict. Careful attention is paid to the ways in which the patient lays siege to the frame of the therapy or to the person of the analyst. Negative therapeutic reaction can lay waste to the entire analytic project. Theories of aggression and of the death instinct are ways of trying to comprehend the destruction unleashed in the analytic theatre. Dr. Nicolai N. Petro, of the University of Rhode Island, argues that Greek tragedy was developed as a way of contributing to the political education of the audience. It was a civic duty to attend the theatre in order to be moved by and to absorb the lessons of tragedy. It has been argued that undergoing psychoanalysis can be a path to becoming a more responsible citizen. An analytic relationship can fail, or come to a tragic end, in a bitter impasse, suicide or psychosis. In this case the small everyday tragedies that are grist for the analytic mill are swept aside by forces that cannot be contained in analytic agon.

Kurt Lampe 

Phaedra’s Agony in Euripides’ Hippolytus, after Phaedra has confessed her passion for her stepson, her nurse urges her to pursue this liaison: “Now it’s a great agon to save your life—not a task you should begrudge!” (496-7) Just what does agon mean here? Certainly it’s a ‘struggle’ to rescue Phaedra from a lovesickness that is ravaging both her body and mind. But it’s also a ‘contest’ between those parts of Phaedra which love and want to live, and those which hate and want to kill and die. This is where Phaedra’s ‘agony’ invites interpretation in depth psychological terms. In this short paper, I will shine a glancing light into the depths that must be illuminated in order to learn from Phaedra’s agon. For the tensions are not only between different beliefs or feelings, but between family members, social and political structures and expectations, and the gods themselves. Phaedra’s explosive ‘loss’ in this contest was always a foregone conclusion, but that very explosion provides part of a mythical paradigm and ritual mechanism to help brides in Troezen deal with similarly ‘deep’ challenges. I will argue that modern depth psychology can help us to understand this, but can also learn from Hippolytus’problematics of mental health.

Roula Maria Dib 

The Hidden Voice in the Aeneid: Agon in Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia

Lavinia, the silent epic character originally in Virgil’s Aeneid is given a voice and transformed into a heroine in the epic’s modern text version, Ursula Le Guin’snovel, Lavinia. My presentation sheds light on the agon between the classicist male-centered epic and the more redemptive, modern novel. Lavinia’s voice competes against the more patriarchic modes of war-hero central storytelling. According to Harold Bloom, a robust literary work requires equally strong precursors to struggle against if it is to come to its own, for “The spirit portrays itself as agonistic, as contesting for supremacy, with other spirits, with anteriority, and finally with every earlier version of itself”. Lavinia’s agon, then, is with the earlier version of herself in the Aeneid; the protagonist’s agon is the competitive struggle between her existence in the two modes of storytelling, the modern and the classicist.Myth-like in its archetypal manifestations, with its plot and characters, Lavinia is in an active but competitive dialogue with The Aeneid, performing a living conversation—and fruitful competition—between Lavinia and Virgil.

Chris Nicholson 

‘From poetic identification to object relations’
Greek theatre begins with the antagonism of the actor and chorus, and the beginnings of dramatic conflict with the introduction of the second actor.  Over time, dramatic representation becomes more pluralistic – a move from antagonistic to agonistic that can be configured as a move from the paranoid-schizoid to depressive position.  I will consider how this tendency is isolated in the poetics of John Keats, and later in the 1920s developed by Robert Graves, just as Melanie Klein was embarking on her formative theoretical developments.  

Paul Bishop

The Agon of Bow and Lyre: For Heraclitus to Wolfram von Eschenbach

This paper will take as its starting-point Ludwig Klages’sdiscussion in chapter 74 of Der Geist als Widersacherder Seele of Plutarch’s treatise on Isis and Osiris in his Moralia (§43-§46, 369b-369d), and specifically those ‘simple yet sublime sentences, even if evaluative according to the way of the Platonists’, where Plutarch ‘finally unfolds a picture of the eternally-becoming, never-existing reality’. It goes to discuss the passage from Heraclitus quoted by Plutarch, and to apply to Heraclitus and his doctrine of logos the kind of structural approach advocated by Hermann Fränkel and Raymond Prier, which investigates such core symbols of his remaining fragments as the lightning-bolt (cf. ‘The thunderbolt steers all things’, DK 22 B 64) or the path (cf. ‘The path up and down is one and the same’, DK 22 B 60) or, as in the case of this fragment, the bow and the lyre (DK 22 B 50, 51). Finally, it considers how this interpretation might be applied to the famous excursus where the narrator describes his narrative technique using the famous ‘bowstring parable’ in book 5 of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, a text where the notion of agon is central to its courtly ethic — and arguably one of the main reasons for the continuing relevance of this epic adventure to our situation today.

11th September

Sulagna Sengupta

The Argumentative Jungian
Ancient agon in Indian episteme and the (f)utility of opposites

In 2005 publication, development economist and philosopher Amartya Sen drew attention to the fact that India had a longstanding intellectual tradition of argumentation and heterodoxy, and wide disparities existed within its philosophical schools. India’s Brahmanical religious philosophy circumvents an important historical fact that atheism, science, mathematics, logic, and agnosticism co-existed within Aryan culture, and that these diverse schools of thought often contested dominant religious principles. Sen argues in his book that Indians have always argued and the merit of disputation, dialectics and skepticism is foundational to knowledge and to a culture of pluralism. This paper, the title of which is inspired from Sen’s book ‘The Argumentative Indian’ (2005) traces the idea of Greek agon in ancient Indian epistemics of vitandavada, the art of disputation (second century BC), and the principles that underlie meaningful and creative dissent. Linking this to Jung’s idea of opposites, that is sine qua non for understanding unconscious, ties an ancient philosophical principle to a psychological one. Opposites characterize not just unconscious psychic processes but mythic rhetoric as well; contest and conflict are at the heart of myths. What does agony of opposites actually yield? Are they indeterminable polarities that have no resolute end or do they lead to the emergence of a dynamic third?

This paper discusses how opposties and argumentation are vital to creative processes, albeit demanding, something that the ancients knew and intentionally pursued.

Maria Chriti.

From Hercules to the Greek Independence of 1821: Agon in pain as an archetype

In Ancient Greek, agon was a polysemous word: it designated the ‘gathering’, the ‘place of contest’, the ‘struggle’ within this specific context, presupposing the existence of many persons, fighting for the same prize, as well as the ‘battle’. Hercules who established the “Ολυμπιακοί αγώνες” (translated as “games”, “jeux” etc, although the ancient Greek word was not “παίγνιον”) experienced pain and reached immortality himself through suffering when dying, just like the athletes had to surpass their common human nature to reach a kind of ‘immortality’, to be above ordinary human beings. And this is how the concept of ‘struggle’ against all odds for a high purpose was contextualized in the ‘contest’.
This very concept is revealed in Aeschylus Persians, the play where all Greek tribes are called with the national name “sons of Greeks” for the first time, they are juxtaposed to the “barbarians” and they are encouraged to “liberate homeland, children, wives, shrines of gods, the tombs of ancestors, …; now is the agon for everything” (402-405): “Ὦ παῖδες Ἑλλήνων, ἴτε, ἐλευθεροῦτε πατρίδ᾽, ἐλευθεροῦτε δὲ παῖδας, γυναῖκας, θεῶν τε πατρῴων ἕδη, θήκας τε προγόνων· νῦν ὑπὲρπάντων ἀγών”. In this case, agon is not a contest among various participants: it is a collective struggle against the impossible for a sacred purpose, which is the national liberty and this is how it is imprinted in the Greek collective self-consciousness (in the Persian Wars, lives are gladly sacrificed for this purpose, as it happened in all battles, especially in Thermopylae with the Spartans of Leonidas).
After Aeschylus, agonia, a derivative of agon means ‘battle’ throughout the tradition of medieval vernacular Greek texts, as it is attested by the Kriaras Dictionary, but agon again means the ‘sacred struggle for freedom’ in the texts between 18th-19th cent., when Greeks were under the Ottoman occupation and they were preparing themselves to struggle for regaining their national identity and independence. Therefore, in the Memorabilia of Generals Makrygiannis, Kolokotronisand other protagonists of the Greek Revolution, the Agon is unique and sacred, it seems impossible due to the numerical differences with the Ottomans, just like the struggles of Hercules and the Greeks against Persians, but it still is the only way to survive: and God helps the Greeks, just like the gods helped the ancient Greeks, because if they die, they will become immortal and they will be a step closer to independence.
The Agon of the Greek Independence (Αγώνας του1821) stabilized the archetype of the ‘struggle through pain and sacrifices’ in the Greek collective memory and ever since it became a term referring to all struggles in the Modern Greek history (1st and 2nd World Wars, Greek Dictatorship etc.).
Thus it can be said that “Ἀγών/αγώνας” diachronically conveys the sense of ‘pain’ in the Greek collective national consciousness and memory, albeit at the high cost of human lives and suffering.

Selected Bibliography
Beekes, Robert S. P. 2010. Etymological Dictionary of Greek. Leiden.
Chantraine, Pierre. 1968-1980. Dictionnaireétymologique de la langue grecque. Paris: Klincksieck(Α-Δ 1968 ; Ε-Κ 1970 ; Λ-Π 1974 ; Ρ-Υ 1977 ; Φ-Ω 1980).
Christidis, A.-F., M. Arapopoulou & M. Chriti. 2007. A History of Ancient Greek : From the Beginnings to Late Antiquity. Cabridge: CUP.
Del Bello, Davide 2005. Forgotten paths: etymology and the allegorical mindset, Bergamo.
Frisk, Hjalmar. 1960. Griechisches EtymologischesWoerterbuch. Heidelberg.
Hude, C. 1970. Herodoti Historiae. Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press.
Κολοκοτρώνη Θεόδωρος. 1977. Απομνημονεύματα. Εκδόσεις Πολιτεία
Kriaras, E. 1953-2021. Dictionary of Medieval Vernacular Greek. Thessaloniki: Centre for the Greek Language, vols 1-22.
Μακρυγιάννης Στρατηγός. 2003. Απομνημονεύνατα. Εκδόσεις Γνώση.
Nagy, G. 2019. Thinking comparatively about Greek mythology I, Hēraklēs as athlete:

1. Page, D. 1972. Aeschyli Septem quae SupersuntTragoedias. Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press.

 Catriona Miller 
Sumerian Disputation Poems: less agony in the agon?
Although some scholars are convinced that the Sumerians had a strong sense of genre and type, discussion around emic and etic genre within the Sumerian literary corpus is on-going.  However there are at least six poems which can fairly be considered part of a particular literary type.  These have been variously described as contest literature, dialogues, debates, disputations, and perhaps even diatribes.  
These six poems share a common doxology which includes the term a-da-min which can be translated as  a contest (between) two” (ada ‘contest’, min ‘two’)  The doxology is a stereotypical formula stating the winner and praising a god(ess) for the fact that one has surpassed the other.  
Aside from the doxology, these poems have other characteristics in common.  The characters in disputation are non human: Ewe and Grain, Hoe and Plough; Summer and Winter; Bird and Fish; Silver and Copper; and Tree and Reed. They tend to have a similar structure, beginning (with the exception of Hoe and Plough) with a cosmic prologue which describes how the gods set out the universe, and how the two main characters came into dispute. The disputation itself is a series of speeches and replies, sometimes quite ill tempered, before the adjudication occurs by the king or a god.
Whilst of course it is interesting to consider the original purpose of these poems, they are also rewarding when read from a depth psychology perspective.  Jung described the analytical process as a dialectical discussion between the conscious mind and the unconscious, and the non human nature of the contestants and the emotional tone of the debates are suggestive of contents from the unconscious rising into conscious consideration.  
The debates, although often testy and full of insults,  occur between participants who are not true opponents but in fact complementary to each other.  Although they rehearse their advantages and decry the shortcomings of their opponent, it is always in relationship to each other, and the winner is often the one who is able to‘take over’ an argument and turn it around in support of themselves.  In fact, ultimately the contenders are “shown to be equally important: they complement each other and are, by that token, indeed presented as necessary for the universe and for each other!”  Soalthough a winner is somewhat arbitrarily declared, it is clear that they are mutually indispensable, and their true value lies in their combination with the other.  At the end of their debate, Winter and Summer sit down to a banquet together:
They pour out brotherhood and friendship like best oil. By bringing sweet words to the quarrel, they have achieved harmony with each other.
These poems do not declare an emphatic winner and a humiliated loser, as perhaps the classical Greek term agon might suggest.  Instead they depict a form of debate where style and confidence seem as important as fact and argument. In fact a model of debate that could be adopted for the relationship between conscious and unconscious, which should be creative, generative, flexible, ongoing, a true debate of equals and equivalence.  
This paper will examine the Sumerian Disputation Poems with special attention to the attitudes and emotions displayed by the quarrelling parties in the light of Jung’s model of the psyche.

Leslie Gardner

Lucian – the agonies of dialogue

Lucian claimed he’d invented the comic dialogue, closely following Attic comedy and from the same source influencing Plato – the ‘Mimes of Sophron’ (Plato was said to sleep with them under his pillow at night). Along with other second sophistic rhetors, Lucian was criticised for focussing on stylistics rather than content. But there is more substance to his dialogues and not only in their philosophical or ethical proposals but in their very performance. I argue here that Lucian’s dialogues confront reality and hypocritical posturing by engaging in ironic upset. The elenchus is meant to be a question-and-answer series aimed at uncovering the truth of the interlocutors’ ‘real’ meaning. Jonathan Lear explores similarities of Socratic method (the elenchus) and the psychotherapeutic method and arrives at an unexpected conclusion which Freud and Jung anticipated – and I’d suggest therapists are aware of in practice.

The elenchus is never entirely free of direction despite its claims and has its own agenda transcending the interlocutors; and so too therapeutic practice has an aim despite its aspiration: the conclusions are best described as ‘ironic’ in its sense of a ‘desire’ upset by exposing an ‘aspiration’.

The tensions between the two constitutes an agon–but its purpose is a collaborative advance toward healing. These are the elements toward healing – but at what cost? That’s the Agon.

I look at two of the Dialogues of the Courtesans to demonstrate Lucian’s adept manoeuvring of question-and-answer to confront their plight. And to highlight Lucian’s advocacy of this ironic/satiric method of exploration, I will look at his stylised, instructive and performative monologue with an assumed listener (hence its sense of being dialogue), with a young rhetor learning his trade.

Panel: Exploration of Jungian oppositions in classical contexts

Richard Seaford, Paul Bishop, Mark Saban, Barbara Miller. 

Moderator, Maria Chriti

A 2013 paper published by Richard Seaford is set out in contrast to a classic piece on the logic of opposites by Jarrett: the panel discusses the contesting notion of opposition in its psychological and cultural dynamism as the ancients considered the theme over against contemporary Jungian function. Papers will be released closer to the time.

Biographies of contributors

Dr Maria Chriti has been a researcher for 20 years in the Center for the Greek Language (Greek Ministry of Education). She has also taught ancient Greek philosophy at the Open University of Cyprus and she is currently working at the School of Modern Greek in Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. She was a Post-doctorate fellow at the Center of Hellenic Studies (University of Harvard) for the academic year 2017-2018 and her research is entitled: “Aristotle as a name-giver: The cognitive aspect of his theory and practice”. She is the President of the International association ETYGRAM (Etymologies Grecques Antiques et Médiévales), focusing on the promotion of ancient Greek etymology. Her main fields of interest are Aristotelian logic, ancient linguistics, philosophy of language, the relation between mind, soul and reality in ancient Greek philosophy, Neoplatonism, ancient commentators on Aristotle, ancient Greek etymology, the history of Greek language. Among her published works are: Α History of Ancient Greek: From the Βeginnings to Late Antiquity, with A.-F. Christidis & M. Arapopoulou (Cambridge: CUP, 2007) and“Ancient Philosophers on Language” (with P. Kotzia), in The Encyclopedia of Ancient Greek Language and Linguistics (eds. G. Giannakis et al. 2014, vol. I, 124-133).

Roula-Maria Dib (PhD, Leeds) is a creative writer and literary scholar whose works have appeared in several journals and books. She has authored two books, Jungian Metaphor in Modernist Literature (Routledge, 2020) and a poetry collection, Simply Being (Chiron Press, 2021). She is the founding editor of literary and arts journal, Indelible, and creative producer of literary event series, Indelible Evenings, as well as Psychreative, a monthly event for artists and writers with a background in Jungian psychology. Dib is also the food blogger behind Beyond Zucchini. Roula-Maria is a member of the Poetry Society, the British Association for Modernist Studies, the International Association for Jungian Studies, and the Jungian Society for Scholarly Studies. She teaches a MOOC titled “Why Online Creative Communities Matter” on, and she is currently an assistant professor of English at the American University in Dubai.

David Henderson is a lecturer in the Department of Psychosocial and Psychoanalytic Studies, University of Essex. He is a psychotherapist in private practice in London and a member of the British Jungian Analytical Association. Publications include, Apophasis and Psychoanalysis: Pseudo-Dionysius and C.G. Jung (Routledge); ‘The hermit and the analyst,’ Psychodynamic Practice; and Jung, Deleuze and the Problematic Whole, co-editor (Routledge).

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