Until quite recently it was generally believed in the West that an acquaintance with the ancient classics was the mark of a civilized individual, one whose personal views were grounded in the moral and cultural norms of a long tradition.

Yet if the Homeric epics, for example, have sometimes been cited as a source of authoritative guidelines, they have also been an inspiration for those wanting to escape from the guidelines of their culture. Alexander Pope urged the young writer to make Homer’s works your study and delight / Read them by day, and meditate by night. Doing so the student would learn “for ancient rules a just esteem.” As a leader of the English Romantics, Wordsworth rejected the neoclassical rules, but he found something in the ancient world that was for him far more important. The young Wordsworth had moments when he wished he were “A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn” if that would allow him to Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn; / Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea; / Or hear old Triton blow his wreathéd horn. Romantics like Wordsworth envied the ancient Greeks because the ancients, untroubled by modern science, seemed to live surrounded by gods, while in the modern world the saving ignorance of the ancients was possible only for children.

Karl Marx turned to the Romantic view of the Greeks as children when searching for an explanation for the continuing appeal of ancient Greek art and literature. The Greeks, Marx asserted, were the sort of children that give childhood a good name, “normal children.” The seemingly permanent attraction of Greek art and literature, difficult to understand from a Marxist perspective, thus became understandable. After all, Marx asked, “Why should not the historic childhood of humanity, its most beautiful unfolding, as a stage never to return, exercise an eternal charm?”

Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, the former a professor in the department of philosophy at Berkeley and the latter the chairman of the department of philosophy at Harvard, don’t actually refer to the ancient Greeks as children, but they do claim the ancient Greeks lived in a state of wonderment that is impossible today, at least for grownups. The Greeks of Homer’s time, according to Dreyfus and Kelly, “held the world in constant wonder” while living “intense and meaningful lives.” Theirs was a world filled with “worldly wonders that people in the Homeric Age saw everywhere.”

What accounts for their ability to live in a state of “constant wonder” despite war, disease, and natural disaster? According to Dreyfus and Kelly, it is because the ancient Greeks were “happy polytheists” living in “a world of sacred, shining things” that we would do well to recover. Our first step, it appears, would be to overcome the “ancient temptation to monotheism.” Monotheism used to be considered an advance over Homer’s polytheism, not least because the notion of one God over all human beings could be taken to mean that all human beings were equal before God and thus deserve to be treated according to the same moral rules. Dreyfus and Kelly suggest, however, that Homeric polytheism fostered what they see as an even more important moral principle than such equality: diversity. They praise “the happy diversity that Homer allowed,” asserting that “Homer’s gods were a diverse but tolerant family.” We would be much better off, they suggest, if we would only replace judgmental Christian monotheism with “the happy diversity of Homer’s Olympian gods.”

But a glance at the Odyssey, and especially the Iliad (which they almost entirely ignore), suggests that the Dreyfus-Kelly portrait of the Homeric world is so sanitized as to be egregiously misleading. The authors put great stress on the way Homer treats sexuality as exemplified by Helen’s affair with Paris. While a monotheistic, more censorious morality might find Helen and Paris blameworthy, Homer’s Greeks are above such pettiness: “It is true that running off with Paris caused the Trojan War. But that is not lamentable in Homer’s world; it is just the way life is.”

In support of their thesis, Dreyfus and Kelly pay special attention to Helen’s after-dinner speech to Odysseus’ son Telemachus and other guests of her and her husband Menelaus in the fourth chapter of the Odyssey. She “tells a sensational story” about how she “left Menelaus and their young child to run off with an irresistible houseguest named Paris.” For Dreyfus and Kelly, “Perhaps the most shocking feature of the scene .  .  . is that nobody at the party is shocked.” They clinch their point about Homer’s refusal to assign blame by quoting from Fitzgerald’s translation her husband’s nonjudgmental comment: “An excellent tale, my dear, and most becoming.”

A look at the speech itself, however, reveals nothing shocking about the scene except the extent of Dreyfus and Kelly’s misrepresentation. Helen, the text reveals, does not talk about leaving Menelaus and running away with Paris at all. Instead, she tells a story calculated to please both Telemachus and her husband. Odysseus, she relates, once during the war sneaked into Troy in disguise. She helped him, kept his secret, and was delighted when he got back to his camp after killing many Trojans. Helen makes it clear that her sympathies were with the Akhaians, not the Trojans:

The Trojan women raised a cry—but my heart

sang—for I had come round, long before,

to dreams of sailing home, and I repented the mad day Aphrodite

drew me away from my dear fatherland,

forsaking all—child, bridal bed, and husband—

a man without defect in form or mind.

There is nothing shocking, after all, about Menelaus praising a speech that ends by praising him so highly. Notice as well that Helen “repented,” an emotion that Dreyfus and Kelly claim was unknown in Homer’s world.

Helen’s description of her feelings in the Odyssey speech is confirmed by her presentation in the Iliad. Speaking to a sympathetic Hektor (Fitzgerald’s spelling) in the sixth book of that epic, she calls herself “a whore, a nightmare of a woman” (Fitzgerald’s translation). She appreciates Hektor’s refusal to condemn her even though You are the one afflicted most / by harlotry in me and by his [Paris’s] madness. Apparently not only Helen herself but most of the Trojans are not willing to write off Helen’s role in causing the war as an illustration of “just the way life is.” In the last chapter of the Iliad Helen mourns that, with Hektor dead, no one is left who will befriend me, none; / they all shudder at me.

Dreyfus and Kelly compare Helen to Achilles: “What makes Helen great in Homer’s world is her ability to live a life that is constantly responsive to golden Aphrodite. .  .  . Likewise, Achilles had a special kind of receptivity to Ares and his warlike way of life.” But Achilles is not linked with Ares anywhere in the Iliad or the Odyssey. Ares supports the Trojans, not Achilles and the Akhaians. Ares, furthermore, is presented throughout Homer as an unpleasant character whom the other gods despise. In Book Five of the Iliad, Zeus warns Ares, Do not come whining here, you two-faced brute, / most hateful to me of all the Olympians.

Those inclined to accept Dreyfus and Kelly’s portrait of the Homeric gods as “a diverse but tolerant family” might turn to Book Twenty of the Iliad, in which Ares, angry at Athena for injuring him earlier, throws a “giant spear” at Athena. Unhurt, Athena hurls a “black, jagged, massive” boulder at Ares, hitting him in the neck. She lets him know who is boss: Fool, / you’ve never learned how far superior / I’m glad to say I am. When Aphrodite tries to help Ares get away, Athena from the side struck Aphrodite’s breast / with doubled fist, so that her knees went slack, / her heart faint, and together she and Ares / lay in a swoon upon the earth.

If Dreyfus and Kelly largely ignore the Iliad, at least they don’t argue that Homer shouldn’t have written it. They are not so restrained with Dante. In their view, he should have stopped when he finished the Purgatorio and not bothered writing the Paradiso at all: “If Dante had stopped with Beatrice at the top of Purgatory, therefore, he’d have described a completely livable world that could bring joy and meaning into his life. .  .  . Unfortunately, that is not the path Dante takes.” If Dante had only realized, first, that Christianity is best understood as a mood, “Jesus’ contagious new mood of agape love,” and second, that Aquinas’s attempt to use Aristotelian reason in articulating a Christian theology “turns out to have been a bad idea,” we would have been spared a poem that wrongly privileges the love of God over the love of a human being. Dreyfus and Kelly cannot accept that in the Paradiso Dante’s “individual will along with his love of Beatrice and his political commitments have been overwhelmed by the bliss of contemplating God.”

Dreyfus and Kelly’s criticism of Dante because “Beatrice herself is not the ultimate object of love in Dante’s final picture” recalls the Romantic objection to Dante’s placing of the lovers Paolo and Francesca in the second circle of Hell. Isn’t the passionate love of a real person more meaningful than the love of some abstract entity that, to tell the truth, doesn’t actually exist anyway? George Santayana’s reply to the Romantics in 1910 would seem to answer Dreyfus and Kelly today:

There is a great difference between the apprentices in life and the masters. .  .  . Dante was one of the masters. He could feel the fresh promptings of life as keenly as any youngster, or any romanticist; but he had lived these things through, he knew the possible and the impossible issue of them; he saw their relation to the rest of human nature, and to the ideal of an ultimate happiness and peace. He had discovered the necessity of saying continually to oneself: Thou shalt renounce.

Dreyfus and Kelly, uninterested in renouncing, promise that the adaptation of their updated version of polytheism will result in a world even more splendid than Homer’s must have been: “The polytheism that gets all these ways in balance will be more varied and more vibrant than anything Homer ever knew. This contemporary Polytheistic world will be a wonderful world of sacred shining things.”

There is only one catch: Having rejected the universal moral rules that go with monotheism, or any conception of natural law, we are left without any principles to distinguish between charismatic leaders who can bring us closer to the “shining things” and charismatic leaders whose glitter might bring us to catastrophe.

According to Dreyfus and Kelly, “in place of the Kantian courage to resist the madness of crowds, we need the courage to leap in and experience it.” Since there is no way to distinguish on the basis of principle, all one can do (according to Dreyfus and Kelly) is “leap in” and hope that the charismatic figure is more like Martin Luther King than Adolf Hitler:

Only by having been taken over by the fanatical leader’s totalizing rhetoric, and experienced the dangerous and devastating consequences it has, does one learn to discriminate between leaders worth following and those upon whom one must turn one’s back.

It would be prudent to look for ways to learn to “discriminate between leaders” before having to experience “dangerous and devastating consequences,” but doing so would probably involve returning to universal moral standards derived from monotheism, what Dreyfus and Kelly dismissively refer to as “objective, context-independent principles.”

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States.

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