The Magazine

Classical Gas

Seeing things in the Hellenic world that aren’t there.

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By JAMES SEATON
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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.

Painting of the school of Athens

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.”