Friday, January 7, 2011

Human Transformation and Divine Worship

when I am nothing—then I am a man?”
                                                Oedipus Rex in Oedipus at Colonus

                                                “You do not know.
                        The limits of your strength.  You do not know
                        What you do.  You do not know who you are.”
                                                Dionysus in The Bacchae

            After considering the major issues of the course, it is clear to me that we are not done with the experience, wisdom, and tragedy of 5th Century Athens, and Athens is not done with us.  The Parthenon is still standing, and we continue to learn new things about how it was built.  Even with our modern technology, it would be an architectural achievement of the highest order.  I would also argue that Athens was a good deal more egalitarian than our democratic experiment in their system of government.  Our democracy is far from perfected, and the dangers of democratic imperialism, along with the hubris of our leaders, are highlighted by the connecting dots from Sicily to Iraq. 
We want democracy in the Middle East as long as it agrees with own foreign policy position.  We want colonial puppets not autonomous partners.  At every turn, we resist the thorny wisdom that suffering augurs; instead we call our most thoughtful critics unpatriotic and play politics with fear and anxiety until September 11th can mean anything the demagogues want it to mean.  Our use of language, particularly about democracy and freedom, has been bent far past the breaking point.  Lastly, we invoke the help of the gods as long as they agree with our own needs and plans for empire.  The experience of creating and heroically defending the democracy of Athens shaped the ideals of a people, but it also planted the seeds that would lead to empire and eventual destruction.  As we quake in fear with our meaningless color codes for terror, executive power is expanded under the waving banner of freedom by the small government cronies, civil liberties are restricted, and the prophetic voice is ostracized not the tyrant.  Not only does the emperor have no clothes, he has a really crappy body too.  Oedipus had the good sense to put his eyes out after what he did.
            In the historical records of Herodotus and Thucydides, it is clear that we must hold tightly to the wisdom of history, both ancient and our own.  Herodotus had the good sense to value the experience of foreigners and the rise and fall of other empires, and the lessons of history are much broader than the experience of any one polis or race of people.  The Lydian Croesus embodies the wisdom of Solon at the end of his life; No man is happy until he is dead.  Herodotus wrote at a time of increasingly imperialistic behavior.  The hubris of Xerxes should have inspired an Athenian humility, but it didn’t.  Xerxes represents the ultimate warning sign that human beings cannot act with the power of a god.  Herodotus presents a rationalistic method of thinking; historical events and decisions require an act of interpretation.  But it is hard to pinpoint exactly where Athens went wrong during the Golden Age.  Thucydides likewise suggests that the history of Athens did not have to turn out the way it did.  Even from the pro-Athenian standpoint of both Herodotus and Thucydides, Sparta comes across as far more reasonable in their willingness to come to terms of peace without Athens being completely destroyed.  Sparta, not Athens, seems to have a better sense of koros.
            Part of the complexity of the history that we have studied is that warfare both enhanced democracy and hastened the demise of the Athenian Empire.  Hoplite warfare helped to create a more classless society, which is part of the legacy of Athens we would do well to remember and emulate.  For those who could not afford hoplite armor, the rising importance of naval warfare offered tremendous opportunity for the lower classes.  New classes of people demanded and received a greater share of the political power, but Athens now had a professional navy with which it had to do something.  Democracy improved at home but became more radical and aggressive abroad.  Power is a pathology that must be checked, and military power needs to be held in the tightest rein of all.  In the process of rising as a hegemonic state, Athens also lost its autonomous vision of colonization.  The Delian League evolved rapidly from a seaborne vision of democratic participation to a coercive arm of Athenian imperialism on the seas.  What is most troubling about the rise and fall of Athens is that Homeric values of heroism seemed to win at the very same time.  Plutarch’s heroic presentation of Themostocles, Pericles, and Alcibiades all embody Homeric values in their living ideals.  Yet, arguably, all were aggressive imperialists who hastened the demise of the polis they loved.  Athenians loved adventure too much, and no bard inspired their sense of heroic virtue more than Homer.     
            Every society and every religion needs its prophets.  The prophet is the one who can inspire, convict, condemn, enlighten, transform, and redeem.  In Ancient Greece, the great tragedians were the prophets of the time, and their prophecy is obviously still relevant.  Any historical method of this period would likely begin with the many questions of where Athens went wrong.  When did they betray their democratic principles?  Did warfare improve democracy and simultaneously destroy it?  Did the rise of Athens as a hegemonic power overcome their fear of tyranny?  Did Athenians forget the importance of filia in their empire?  Did they simply love adventure too much? 
I think Pericles was wrong in his funeral oration.  What makes Athens great is not her government but her gods.  Democracy, however noble and brilliant its conception, is not an object of worship and adoration.  Democracy isn’t everything; no form of government is.  The American playwright Eugene O’Neil once said that no act of democratic legislation can free the human soul.  A sense of koros comes not simply from a humble understanding that everything can be lost in the reversals of life and fortune at home or on the seas.  It comes from the faith that with the gods is anything is possible.  I should be frightened by the figure of Dionysus in the The Bacchae, but instead I find him to be the only ray of hope in the end game of Athenian empire.  The mutilation of Pentheus’s body is scary indeed, but what the Peloponnesian War did to the human body, language, and Athenian values is the most terrifying thing of all.  Civilized humans mutilated the human body on a far greater scale than did Dionysus in the proof of his divinity.  Which military campaign did Dionysus lead?  When did he order the conquest of Sicily?  To follow the Dionysian thrysus is to make love not war.  I don’t believe that Euripides is just trying to highlight that the violence of the gods is to be feared in The Bacchae. Rather, he is showing that human disorder and unbelief is far more dangerous than anything the gods can do to us.  A man or woman who seeks divinity with all of his or her heart is more than a man and more than a woman.  To seek the gods is to seek the spiritual source of all order and infinite ecstasy.  To have everything is to know that you can lose everything, but that’s just the beginning.  The true Athenian virtue is neither to be a democrat nor a hero in the glorious pattern of Homer.  It is to seek the shrine of the god and goddess as a humble pilgrim who has suffered into the truth.        

No comments:

Post a Comment