Some Preliminary Observations on Classical Greek Literature by Ian Johnston
Some Preliminary Observations on Classical
by Ian Johnston[A few changes and additions made for posting on this Excellence in Literature webpage are noted in italics in brackets. References to notes by the author are indicated in bold parentheses such as (12) and the notes are found at the end of the text.]
I’ve been asked today to take a few moments for some words of introduction to the ancient Greeks, to provide, that is, a necessarily cursory background for your reading of Aeschylus. To anyone with the slightest knowledge of the amazing achievements of the ancient Greeks in so many different areas, the difficulty of offering a simple introduction will be obvious enough. Where might one begin to come up with a short, coherent account of such an astonishing culture? However, in the spirit of those very Greeks, who were never ones to duck a challenge, I shall make my attempt and, in so doing, perhaps encourage others to correct, qualify, or argue about what I have to say.
Some Opening Cautions
However, before plunging into the details, I should clarify a few things for those readers who may be quite unfamiliar with ancient Greek culture or at least uncertain about what I mean by the term. I’m talking about the achievements of the various city states on mainland Greece, the islands, and the coast of Asia Minor who thought of themselves as having a shared Hellenic (or Greek) tradition, in contrast to other people around them, in a period lasting roughly four and half centuries, that is, from the time of Homer (c. 750 BC) to the deaths of Alexander the Great (323 BC) and Aristotle (322 BC). During this period the cultural developments in literature, art, philosophy, history, politics, architecture, and science were without parallel, and they later exerted a decisive and lasting influence upon the development of Western civilization.
One needs at this point also to clarify the term Greeks, because to newcomers it probably suggests a good deal more cultural and political unity than, in fact, prevailed. During this period there were hundreds of fiercely independent Greek city states distributed on mainland Greece, on the islands, and on the coast of Asia Minor (to mention the most important geographical areas). They were all quite small, and they possessed relatively little overall unity. What these city states shared was a common language (although with significantly different dialects), a common religious and cultural tradition, a few shared festivals and religious councils, and (what is probably most important) a sense of their difference from other cultures around them (the “barbarians,” so called because their language sounded like incomprehensible gibberish “bar-bar-bar”) (1). For a more detailed review of the geography of the Greek states please consult the following link: Background [http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/clas101/background2.htm].
The extraordinarily impressive cultural achievement of the Greeks invites speculation about its cause. And there has been no lack of suggestions as to why these ancient Greeks, rather than, say, the much wealthier and more powerful Persians to the east or Egyptians to the south, should have achieved so much in such a relatively short time. Like many others who have spent years reading and thinking about the Greeks, I have pondered this matter, and the occasion of this lecture prompts me to explore a tentative and inevitably somewhat reductive answer to the issue of what underlying characteristic was so special about the Greeks that it launched and sustained this marvelous moment of cultural history. For the single most important and influential feature of ancient Greek culture, if we can identify such a thing, must surely lie somewhere among the developments that brought it about in the first place, some unifying cultural fact which fostered an explosion of creative effort, a common factor uniting Homer and Plato, Aeschylus and Aristotle, Thucydides and Aristophanes.
Such speculation invites one inevitably to ruminate about how the Greeks saw the world, about how their understanding of things was shaped by some distinctive factors which, for all the obvious differences between those writers listed above, gave them a certain commonality and set them apart from other cultures. And that road leads directly to some general reflections on how the Greeks interpreted the relationship between themselves and the forces which rule the world, between, that is, their human communities and the divine. So in offering a rapid general introduction, I propose to say a few things about that subject, skimming rather lightly over many complex and thoroughly investigated issues, in order to offer at least a few topics for discussion and debate. For the single most distinctive thing about the ancient Greeks, as with so many other cultures, is how they understood the nature of things and how their actions and achievements arose out of that vision of how the world works.
At this point I should add one further preliminary remark: my attention here is on the sense we get of what I am calling the Greek vision of the world by looking at some of their major artistic achievements, rather than from a detailed attention to their social history. This is a somewhat artificial and perhaps misleading distinction, I admit, rather like using the major Elizabethan writers to draw conclusions about religious thinking in England during that period. But I’m assuming that the major artists and writers were at the cutting edge of the Greek cultural consciousness and thus that the major features of their vision of the world have a significant relationship to wider cultural concerns. In any case, the interest of most of those who sample classical Greek culture is anchored in the major works, rather than in the more quotidian details of everyday life, an area which tends to be reserved for scholars.
The Greek Vision of the Divine
Like virtually every other culture, the ancient Greeks developed a religious understanding of the world based on divine presences and traditional stories. This aspect of their achievement is probably the most widely known element in their culture, for almost everyone in the West still remembers something about the Greek gods and goddesses and about a few of the more important legends associated with them (e.g., the Trojan War). What may be less obvious is how the particular forms of these divinities and their interrelationships with each other and with human beings made the ancient Greek vision of experience decisively different from many other apparently similar belief systems.
The first important (and most frequently noted) characteristic of the Greek gods is their human form. Unlike other religions, the Greeks did not give a prominent place in their religious hierarchy to monsters, animals, or bizarre imaginary creatures (there are such things in Greek mythology, of course, but they are distinctly minor characters). Their gods have human shapes and exist within the context of an extended family recognizably similar to human families. Hence, in the Greek religious imagination, the highest and most perfect manifestations of existence have forms and attributes exactly like those of their human worshippers. Indeed, except for their power, beauty, and immortality, the Greek gods are exactly like human beings in the way they look, feel, talk, and behave. And much of the time, their actions within the context of the huge divine family are recognizably human—they fight with each other, make up, have illicit affairs, deceive each other, try to subvert the authority of the powerful father, argue, laugh at each other’s distress, and so on, activities all perfectly comprehensible to anyone with some experience of family life among human beings. Divine motivation is thus linked directly to the constantly shifting and frequently irrational feelings within the human family, and the forces which rule the world are made instantly recognizable and emotionally intelligible because they have such a familiar form.
Such family affairs (in heaven as on earth) have a dynamic and dramatic quality, since the more important events almost invariably involve conflict of some kind, everything from a mild spat to a bitter and long-lasting feud, from an amusing tale of infidelity to stories of extraordinary suffering and cruelty. So it’s not surprising perhaps that this religious vision became such a rich source of intriguing and entertaining stories. More that that, this view of the cosmos enshrines conflict as the heart of divine and natural processes. And such conflicts are not, as in other religions, allegorized pictures of the forces of good fighting the forces of evil, but much more unpredictable and morally ambiguous stories, often without any clear “lesson” for human beings, other than the repeated emphasis that the gods are powerful and inconsistent. Just as ambiguity is a central fact of human family life on earth (with blurred lines of authority, shifting allegiances, volatile emotions, and uncertain motives), so ambiguity is a central fact of life in heaven and thus of explanations for natural events.
The vision of the divine presences is for the ancient Greeks extremely visual and sharply focused and accompanied by countless familiar stories about the adventures of the gods and goddesses, both in their dealings with each other and in their interactions with human beings. The Greeks never tired of depicting these deities or telling stories about them, and their freedom to do so is astonishing to those raised in cultures with a much sterner attitude towards artistic interpretations of the divine. Greek religion was a serious matter, and penalties for flouting religious practices could be very severe (Socrates, after all, was executed for impiety). Nonetheless, there was a freedom to express oneself about the gods, and the range of those responses is remarkable, all the way from pious hymns and devout prayers, to scandalous tales of infidelity and rape, to the most rude satirical portrayals (the god Dionysus, a character in Aristophanes Frogs, for example, shits himself on stage, describes his turds as a religious offering, and does so at a religious festival in his own honour, in the presence of the city’s most important religious officials, evidently to the delight of everyone, including those officials).
Such freedom in the artistic treatment of a religious vision is hard to explain. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that there was no official holy book (like the Bible) which codified the stories into official versions. Nor was there a huge, suffocating, bureaucratic, and politically significant priesthood to enforce uniformity of interpretation. Whatever the reason, the result is well known, an amazing stimulus to the production of works of art celebrating and exploring the nature of the divine in all sorts of ways. Since the Greeks saw the gods as larger-than-life human beings, the art (as has been so frequently discussed) becomes a celebration of the ideal human form, and the highest achievements in art are, in effect, a celebration of human physical beauty. Similarly, the stories deal with a range of divine experiences closely modeled on the way human beings feel, talk, act, and think. It is difficult to imagine a religious vision which so insistently fosters an exploration of the divine in terms of the physical realities of human life (as opposed to, say, encouraging believers to turn away from the physical or to emphasize some aspect of life over another or to wrap the divine in the mysterious or the bizarre). The urge to keep these stories alive (and to embellish existing stories) was always present, because these gods existed in every part of nature and their actions were responsible for natural events, major and minor. With every part of the landscape and every creature potentially infused with a divine presence, stories about the gods were the principal way of explaining what was going on in the world at any given moment (quite apart from the inherent narrative appeal of a family soap opera). In addition, of course, putting entertaining theatrical depictions of such stories on display was an essential part of the Greeks’ religious festivals.
Obviously many people find this fusion of a religious vision and artistic fecundity delightful, for the vast treasure house of art and story has been a constant source of inspiration and pleasure for later centuries, to say nothing of our sense of how such a religious view transforms our understanding of nature. But we should avoid the error (common to many later lovers of the Greeks) of sentimentalizing this belief system, of seeing it as no more than an astonishingly charming, amusing, and artistically fertile fabrication (such a response has not been uncommon, for example, among those who wish to see Homer’s gods as merely entertaining poetical inventions, a reaction which, of course, tends to close off any attempt to understand these gods as central to a serious and long-lasting religious vision and thus spares us any potentially embarrassing comparisons between pagan beliefs and Judeo-Christian religion). Consequently, we need to attend to some of the more problematic or troubling or less immediately pleasant aspects of this panoply of anthropomorphic deities.
We might begin by observing that the gap between the divine and the human was absolute. While the gods frequently interacted with human beings, sometimes in very cruel ways, at other times more benignly, no human being could aspire to divine status. Whatever the afterlife might hold (and throughout much of Greek literature Hades is not a particularly welcoming place, certainly a far less desirable residence than the surface of the earth), it does not involve commingling with the gods, no matter how piously one might have lived or how famous one became. The one important exception to this separation is Hercules, a son of Zeus, who was given a place in heaven after death because of his extraordinary exploits. But there is no sense that another hero might ever follow his example (2). Hence, this religious belief holds out no great future hopes in an idyllic life hereafter and insists on an unbridgeable gulf between human beings and gods (3).
More important than this point, perhaps, is the fact that, although the physical features of and stories about the gods are well known and celebrated, the gods’ wishes are far from clear, especially their intentions regarding human beings. The gods frequently interfere physically and psychically in human affairs (bringing on, for example, madness, illnesses, unusual acts of courage or folly, natural disasters, untimely death, and so on), but there is nothing consistent about these interactions, and they may or may not take place, no matter how many times the human beings offer sacrifices or prayers. Throughout Greek literature the relationship of the gods to human beings is ambiguous. They demand worship, and it is wise to be pious, so that good fortune is more likely to come (maybe) and one runs less chance of being punished. And often people express reverent hopes that the gods will punish evil doers. But there is no guarantee. The gods are just as likely to ignore the worshipper or punish him anyway. Given this, it’s not surprising that a very common Greek saying affirmed that no man should be called happy until he was dead. Only at that point could one make any conclusion about how the gods had treated him.
Another way of making the same point is to mention how the gods provide no clear instructions about how human beings were to behave towards them or towards each other. Yes, there are some important divinely sanctioned basic principles, like observing the appropriate attitudes towards guests in one’s home or towards those offering hospitality (a view emphatically brought out in the Odyssey, for example), and it is important to pay one’s respects by appropriate sacrifices and prayers. The gods do communicate to human beings at certain shrines through the mouths of their prophets. Sometimes a soothsayer may learn something of the gods’ intentions from omens or entrails. But such communications or readings are notoriously ambiguous and, as often as not, rebound on the person seeking advice. What is missing is a clear and consistent sense of what the relationship between the gods and human beings ought to be. Why have the gods created human beings, and why do they behave towards them the way they do? The answers to such questions are by no means given, and there is no single orthodox answer. In the Iliad, Helen suggests that the gods have arranged for human beings to fight endless wars in order to produce interesting stories which will entertain people in later generations. Herodotus offers the view that the driving force of history is punishment meted out by the gods for those who become too obsessed with their own greatness. At times there is a sense that the gods bring on human suffering for their own amusement; at other times, the gods turn their backs on human affairs. Sometimes the gods complain about human wrongdoing. Choruses in Greek tragedies often offer the fervent hope that those who are good will avoid the wrath of the gods and that only those who do bad things will suffer (a moral faith which the story will often contradict). In Oedipus the King, even the finest of all men, who strives to do the right thing, suffers horribly for some divine reason which is never provided. In Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, the chorus believes there is a divine purpose guiding events but is filled with an anxious uncertainty about what that might be and can cope with their distress only with a repetitive formulaic “All may be well.” Again and again, Greek literature draws attention to a radical uncertainty about divine purposes.
Here a brief comparison with the Jewish religion may be helpful. Unlike the Greeks, the Jews have a single God (with a capital G) whose presence is completely mysterious (His name is unpronounceable and there is a commandment forbidding any images depicting His form). Hence, there is a total lack of stories about or images of His life in heaven, His genealogy, or any other specific aspect of His physical being. However, His relationship with the Jews is emphasized and clarified over and over. He has provided, through Moses, a comprehensive list of hundreds of instructions about how the faithful are to behave in all aspects of their lives, and He has established a contract with His people: if they will believe and follow His laws, he will deliver them or their descendants into the Promised Land, where they will be rich and prosperous. One of the central features of the Old Testament is a succession of prophets who keep reminding the people of this covenant. Thus, for the Jews there is no ambiguity about their relationship to the Lord or about what God is planning for His people. There may well be some uncertainties about how certain laws should be interpreted in particular cases, but there is no doubting the authority of the laws themselves (and they were written down and codified in a way that effectively preserved them intact). Even in the most difficult times, the Jewish believer knew what he had to do and could remember God’s promise and the historical evidence of God’s actions in living up to it (as in the Exodus from Egypt, the survival in the desert, and the arrival in Canaan).
For all the clarity of the vision of the divine personalities, the Greeks lack this sort of assurance (there is only one famous Greek quasi-religious commandment, characteristically ambiguous, the inscription at the oracle at Delphi: “Know thyself”). There is no way of knowing whether the gods or a particular god will or will not favour them from one day to the next. In the Iliad, for example, the warriors are constantly offering prayers and sacrifices to Zeus in order to gain his support, which will give them success on the battlefield. As often as not, Zeus denies their request. This denial, however, does not lead the warriors to question their faith. They tried, but on this day Zeus wasn’t in the mood to assist them. Perhaps things will be different tomorrow. There is no way they can read Zeus’ mind or predict what he will do; nor do they have any right to expect that he will favour them just because they have offered a rich sacrifice. Nevertheless, they continue to believe. In many cases, they can explain such disappointment as the result of the interference of some other god. Zeus may be sympathetic, but his wife, Hera, may have persuaded him to suspend his sympathy for a while, so she can get her way, or she or some other god may have tricked him (so the believers can accept the setback without blaming Zeus or slackening their faith in him or even doubting his special affection for their cause). Since there is no demand that the divine family act any more logically or consistently than any large human family, there are any number of reasons why human hopes in a particular deity may be misplaced on any particular occasion. In much of Greek literature, the notion that these gods have to be consistently fair or answer to some rational code of conduct or live up to an agreement is never raised (other than as a thin hope).
[Parenthetically, one might note that this aspect of their religious belief drove some Greeks (a distinct minority wanting to put morality onto a more rational footing) away from the traditional mythology, on the ground that the gods were immoral in their own conduct and in their treatment of human beings (all that sexual activity, duplicity, and cruelty were not appropriate to divine beings). And the confusion and ambiguity of many of the accounts of the gods’ actions appear to have led others to seek explanations for natural events without reference to the old stories. This latter response gave birth to what we recognize as the beginning of science and philosophy (more about this later on)].
Such a faith, it strikes me, for all its beauty, energy, and artistic fertility, is, as Nietzsche realized, a very tough religious vision sustained in the harshest conditions without any reliable hope that things will work out all right eventually. In a number of the Greek tragedies, one of main functions of the chorus seems to be to provide a sense (albeit often a less resolute sense than in the Iliad) of this uncertainty. The gods are in control, but what are their plans? What do they intend for us? Where are we going next? Will they assist us, or are their wishes on this occasion more malicious or uncaring? Such questions often generate an ominously ironic mood. We might note here, too, that, unlike Jewish religion, the Greek vision contains no historical promise. However the gods behave and whatever their intentions (if they have any consistent plans at all), there is no sense that things are going to change fundamentally for the better (in fact, if anything, the situation for human beings has gotten considerably worse since the age of the heroes). In that sense, their religious belief gives them a profoundly static picture of the world: history is not taking them anywhere except, perhaps, around in circles, and so history will not deliver them a clear answer to those urgent questions or alter the situation they find themselves in now.
The most optimistic vision of Greek religion, at least before Plato, is our first surviving complete tragedy: Aeschylus’ Oresteia (458 BC), which offers us the vision of an enormously attractive possibility: a harmoniously working fusion of divine and human justice. The trilogy opens with a community in crisis. Its traditional understanding of justice is failing, since it seems to lead to an unending sequence of revenge killings which threaten the survival of the state. By the end of the trilogy, the gods have, in effect, transferred some responsibilities for justice onto the human community and have reconciled the divine forces of blood revenge with the human powers of rational persuasion. Hence, there exists here (in this aesthetic vision) a happy fusion of divine and human power, under which the state will thrive. The most pessimistic of all Greek plays is the last surviving tragedy, Euripides’ Bacchae (404 BC), which exposes the divine forces as mindlessly irrational, absurdly cruel, and fatally destructive to the human community and which explodes any notion that a harmonious reconciliation between the human powers of reason and the divine force is possible.
Dike and the Tragic Experience
These common observations about the Greeks bring me to what is probably the central point of these remarks For in Greek literature the most distinctive characteristic arising out of this vision of experience is a passionate and ceaseless concern for Justice, a constant exploration seeking clarification about these questions of divine purpose and the appropriate response to an often cruel and always ambiguous relationship between the human and the divine. The term Justice here (in Greek Dike, pronounced to rhyme with dee-kay), one needs to add, is a very wide-ranging concept having to do with a great deal more than fair judicial processes. In Greek mythology Dike was a goddess, a daughter of Zeus, responsible for maintaining moral order on earth, but the term refers also to something much wider than a single personality, a concept we might call “the arrangement,” something analogous to a structural principle by which things work or ought to work and which might guide human beings to a better understanding of the world and their role in it.
Given that cosmic order is mysterious and that there is no authoritative description of or shared agreement about it, the choice is either to accept the mystery and celebrate it in various ways (through religious rituals, for example), in the hope that Justice, however it worked, might guide one’s behaviour (i.e., base one’s life on the human hope that the gods might really be concerned about proper human conduct), or else to challenge it, that is, to see what human beings might be able to learn about divine justice by pushing human striving to the limit, by directly confronting the unknown given conditions of the world (rather than just passively enduring them). This latter response seems to have been one which the Greeks, for some reason, especially favoured. In fact, this restless search for dike may well be the decisive characteristic of their culture (particularly among the group known as the Ionians, centred in Athens and living on many islands and cities in Asia Minor). And so many of their greatest human heroes are those who embark upon a battle against those fatal conditions (fatal in the sense that they lie outside human control) in an attempt to impose their own will upon the world.
Of course, many cultures have important heroes who confront the unknown, who, like Gilgamesh, leave the human community to fight against monsters in the dangerous forests of the wilderness, and who embark on various quest narratives full of mysterious dangers. But these heroes tend to survive the encounters, learn from them, and return to the human community, bringing back an enriched understanding of why the community matters. The Greeks, however, developed a particular interest in the hero who is killed or who self-destructs in his quest, the person who does not learn the importance of the community and return to it but rather one who, having launched himself against Fate, continues his fight against the unknown well beyond the limits of human prudence or communal restraint until the ironic mystery and power of what he is up against destroys him. In short, the Greek preoccupation with dike leads them to a celebration of the tragic vision of experience.
I don’t propose to offer here a lengthy description of the terms tragedy or the tragic vision of experience, other than to observe that this uniquely Greek vision arises from the desire of some extraordinarily self-assertive personalities to live life entirely on their own terms, no matter what the cost (4). Their sense of their own rightness is so strong that they push their fierce demands on life well beyond all conventional communal standards to the point where the consequences of their actions lead to their own destruction. In other words, they take human experience (and especially human freedom to act) to the utter limit, and, in so doing, temporarily expose social conventions (including conventional religious belief) as consoling illusions and reveal something about the way the cosmos really works. While such a vision is profoundly fatalistic and almost always deeply pessimistic, it affirms the ability of individual human beings to assert their heroic willingness to confront the mysteries of dike and to accept in full the horrific consequences of that stance. For the Greeks such a hero was worthy of their finest artistic efforts and greatest admiration.
The Greek fascination with the tragic hero undoubtedly stems from their pre-occupation with competitive displays of excellence. Homer established for the Greeks a standard of virtuous conduct based on competition. The most important goal of the best warriors is always to strive to be the best, not simply in battle, but in athletic games, public speaking, possessions, personal appearance, and so on. If the universe does not give me a coherent and consistent moral standard or rules (something like the Ten Commandments), then I derive a sense of my excellence and purpose, my value as a human being, from where I stand in relation to my peers, from the way in which my community (as well as other communities) recognizes and celebrates my individual pre-eminence. Even in a life away from the battlefield, as Odysseus demonstrates in the Odyssey, the highest purpose of human life is to demonstrate one’s heroic qualities in competitive actions and (equally important) to make sure such achievements are known and recognized by others. Such a belief fosters a continuing fascination with individual self-assertion quite unlike, say, the Jewish emphasis on communal striving or the Roman emphasis on public service or the Christian faith in meekness, charity, and humility (5).
Parenthetically, it’s worth observing that this Greek admiration for self-assertiveness extended also to those who were very successful liars or tricksters, people who used their wits to secure an advantage for themselves by frequently duplicitous means. This quality of the Greeks was not especially admired by later cultures. It helped to produce the most famous line ever written about the Greeks by a Roman (Vergil’s “I fear the Greeks, especially when they bring gifts”) and accounts for the fact that in medieval and Renaissance literature the great Greek hero Odysseus is often treated as a disreputable character or a villain (e.g., in Dante’s Inferno, where he and Diomedes are deep in hell, and in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida).
While on this brief digression, I should perhaps mention the significance of this heroic striving and its relationship to dike by considering for a moment the Greed word Eros, the designation of the god of love (along with Aphrodite) and love itself. Love instigated by Eros characteristically leads to a striving forward and upward. The term refers to an irrational zest for life and a desire to experience and embrace the world. Applied to the human being’s attitude to the gods, it communicates a sense of upward striving, a challenging attempt to reach out and apprehend the divine, often a passion that expresses itself in explicit sexual terms. By contrast, the Christian concept of love, agape, designates a love which flows down from above, a divine gift which human beings accept and share in the spirit of a community which knows and celebrates its relationship with God (Jesus is the supreme example and source of agape). Where Eros lies at the very heart of individualistic heroic striving, Agape promotes a diametrically opposed vision of love, in which such heroic striving has no place. A Greek would find the instruction to love his neighbour just as he loves himself incomprehensible.
Of course, not all Greek heroes push their self-assertiveness to the limit. In the Iliad, for example, there are clearly understood unwritten rules about just how far one has to exert oneself in a battle (in certain circumstances, withdrawal or even a refusal to fight is acceptable), and in dramatic tragedies it is common for someone to urge the hero to relent. But the tragic hero is clearly one who acknowledges no such unwritten rules and who thus defies the social conventions which urge him to exhibit some restraint, as we see from following the careers of the greatest of them: Achilles (in the Iliad) and Oedipus (in Oedipus the King), among others.
In the ancient world, this tragic response to life is unique to the Greek literature. The closest example we have of it in the Old Testament is the story of Job, who, like Achilles, demands an accounting from the divine and is (for a while) unwilling to relent, even in response to some urgent pleas from his friends. But Job does finally give way; he does not push his confrontation with God to the limit. And, as if to neutralize any discomfort we may experience from this encounter (and tragedies can be very disconcerting, since they force us to examine our conventional beliefs), Job is handsomely rewarded, so that he ends up even better off than before (an ending which has prompted all sorts of objections and accusations of tampering with the texts). Of course, in any culture where the survival of the community at all costs is the central imperative, the tragic figure’s obsession with his own individual integrity can be an unwelcome and excessive manifestation of individualism, a preoccupation with one’s own will rather than with the community ethic (one of the reasons why modern social reformers often have little room for a tragic view of life).
It seems highly probable (although there is no direct evidence for this) that tragic drama began as a celebration of such a hero (who may well have been a historical character). Legends have it that the first actor was a man called Thespis and that originally a tragic drama consisted of a huge chorus and a single actor (perhaps the leader of the chorus) who took on the role of the hero in the choral celebrations of his memory and acted out his greatest exploit. The development of tragic drama saw an increase in the number of actors on stage at any one time (Aeschylus normally uses two and Sophocles three) and a diminishing importance for the chorus (in the Oresteia the choruses have a major role in the play and at times are large; in some of Euripides’ plays they seem almost irrelevant). Moreover, it’s significant that such dramatic presentations of tragic heroes took place in a competition which was a central feature of an important annual religious festival, so that the celebration of heroic self-assertiveness was also an integral part of religious worship, fascinating communal celebrations of heroic individualism (6).
It is tempting to link this self-assertive spirit and tragic vision of life to both the high and low points of Greek history. The most triumphant moments were undoubtedly the two defeats of the Persian invaders, one at Marathon in 490 and the other at Salamis and Plataea in 480. Faced with what looked like impossible odds (especially in the second invasion by Xerxes) the Greeks set aside their frequently quarrelsome differences and marched out to confront a foreign enemy. Thanks to the heroic conduct of particular individuals (most famously the Spartans at Thermopylae) and the bravery of the citizens, the Persians were defeated, and Greece was saved. The lowest point of Greek history was the Peloponnesian War (which started in 431 BC and ended in 404 BC), in effect, a savage conflict between groups of Greek states who could or would not reconcile their differences more peacefully because their shared traditions were insufficient to check their fear of each other and their leaders’ quests for power. The war ruined Athens (although its cultural achievements by no means ended then), and the victorious power, Sparta, soon went into a permanent decline. Many of the great works we read now were written in the light of these events. Aeschylus fought at the Battle of Marathon, and the great optimism of his Oresteia may well be a product of his sense of the astonishing achievements of the united Greeks. Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes wrote during various stages of the war, and their treatments of the old stories and traditional customs are decisively shaped by that event. The last and most pessimistic works of classical Greek culture (Thucydides’ Pelponnesian War and Euripides’ Bacchae) were written when the disastrous results of the civil war (especially for the Athenians) were clear for all to see. Within about seventy years (by 338 BC), the Greek states had been defeated by the Macdeonians and about one hundred years later by the Romans.
By a curious and (perhaps) significant irony, the conquest of the Greeks by Philip of Macedon was consolidated by his son, Alexander the Great, the most self-assertive warrior of all time, who saw himself as the reincarnation of Achilles and who carried with him on his campaigns (in a special casket which used to hold the crown of Persia) a copy of the most influential shaping work of traditional Greek culture, Homer’s Iliad.
A Note on the Philosophers
Given the importance and nature of Greek religion, one is entitled to wonder how the Greeks could provide such an incredibly rich collection of myths, stories, and artistic celebrations of irrational faith and at the same time establish the origins (and some of the highest points) of philosophical enquiry. How could these different approaches to understanding dike arise and flourish in the same communities?
To answer such a complex question very briefly, I can refer to my previous remark about how the very richness and complexity of Greek religion prompted a reaction against it. We have no accurate knowledge of how this reaction began, although traditionally the first important philosophers are associated with Miletus, a city in Asia Minor. The location may well be significant because Miletus would be a place where traditional Greek religion encountered other beliefs and stories from the East and where there was therefore some confusion or at least debate about which stories were more important than others. Whether this is the case or not, philosophy seems to have started with a few citizens of Miletus (someone named Thales is supposed to have been involved) asked a question which to us may seems very obvious but which for most cultures is very strange: Can we explain how things work, without calling in divine forces or personalities as causes in natural events? Can we, in other words, find a natural explanation for natural events? Alternatively put, can we banish our traditional gods and goddesses from our understanding of dike?
The significance of this question cannot be overestimated, and it remains a mystery why the Greeks should be the ones to ask it originally and pursue it for so long. It’s important because it asks the thinker to abandon traditional stories and find some reasonable way to account for the ways things are on earth, a human account which relies on natural events. There is no space here to trace the achievements of these early philosophers (called materialists because they first sought an explanation in terms of some essential material, like water, or air, or ether). But I would like briefly to mention the most decisive moment of their enquiries. The search for some essential and universal material stuff quickly ran into difficulties, and so some of these thinkers turned their attention to another approach: what mattered in explanations was not the stuff itself, but the arrangement of material, the formal structure of matter. One could explain the variety of things in the natural world by speculating about the fundamental properties of matter, especially (as it turned out) the mathematical properties of its constituents (7).
Now, this wedding of mathematics to explanations of nature is of enormous importance. It is, in effect, the start of science and a major advance for philosophical speculation. For example, using geometry to plot the movements of the heavens makes modern astronomy possible (it enables one to move beyond observation into precise modeling of the cosmos on mathematical principles). It’s curious, in retrospect, that the Babylonians, who were mathematically much more sophisticated than the Greeks and whose observations of the stars went back thousands of years, never thought of putting the two together, any more than did the Egyptians, from whom the Greeks derived much of their knowledge of geometry.
To put mathematics at the heart of one’s understanding of dike is to demand a fundamentally different form of reasoning, and some of the philosophers were clearly seeking to do this as a way of countering the frequently irrational (and, in their eyes, immoral) behaviour associated with traditional rituals, cults, sacrifices, and so on. However, it is not necessarily demanding the abandonment of a religious sensibility. For mathematics came to be seen in many quarters as a spiritual training, a way to discipline the mind, so that knowledge of the higher order of things might be attained through geometry, rather than through the various methods used in traditional religion (e.g., fasting, drink, group chanting, sex, sacrifices, prayers, and so on). Plato (in the Republic) gives the greatest importance to an understanding of geometry as a spiritual training and is deliberately subverting the tradition in order to insist that we can only arrive at an understanding of dike by thinking in a new way. His goal, however, is still an inspired insight into how the cosmos works, what the highest divine powers have to reveal (what he calls the Form of the Good) (8).
It’s probably fair to say that rational philosophy (or rational enquiry generally) tends to flourish, if at all, at critical periods when the traditional religion is failing in some important ways (as in Europe after the Thirty Years’ War). So it’s no accident that the greatest surviving works of Greek philosophy come, like Thucydides’ great work which marks the emergence of a historical enquiry based on thoroughly rational principles, after the Peloponnesian War, by which time many of the most important social organizations responsible for traditional religious faith and communal customs had been badly discredited and traditional Greek society was in shambles.
While these philosophical speculations were obviously different in significant ways from the old religious traditions, in one important respect they were alike: both were spatial explanations which emphasized the visual order of the cosmos, without reference to any notion of historical development. What matters in the search for dike are the formal properties which make the world the way it is. Such a way of looking at the world is crucially different from the Jewish (and later Christian) way of seeing the world as primarily based on an unfolding, linear story, a unique and divinely guided history.
These differences have led some thinkers to speculate about our divided inheritance. In our explanations for natural things (including ourselves) we can think like Greeks, or we can think like Jews. We can, that is, explain things with reference to their formal properties, the way they are arranged, the mathematical structures which make them what they are, or we can explain them with reference to their history, a story of how they have developed into what they have become. The first is the basis of the scientific imagination; the second is the basis for the historical imagination. Much of the modern history of Western civilization arises from the combination of these two visions, when, starting in the seventeenth century, we turned our scientific imaginations loose in the service of a vision of our historical destiny. But that’s another story.
I have repeatedly mentioned that the achievements of the classical Greeks played a decisive role in the development of Western culture, and that fact should be obvious to anyone who has the slightest general knowledge about those achievements. Tracing this influence, however, is a complex business, since Western attitudes towards Greek culture have often been very sceptical, if not directly hostile.
The Romans admired the Greeks excessively, borrowed extensively from them, and were very conscious of their inferiority to the Greeks in all sorts of things. But at the same time they were deeply suspicious of many aspects of Greek culture, particularly in light of what had happened to it when the Greeks turned against each other. So they deliberately set their cultural goals in a different direction and encouraged artists to promote a vision of life very different from that of the Greeks. By an irony of history, a famous Roman, Julius Caesar, may have been responsible for the most catastrophic event in the literary history of Greece, the burning of the library in Alexandria (in the first century BC), an event which destroyed thousands of irreplaceable documents (this is not to suggest that Caesar, if he did start a fire, deliberately meant the library to be engulfed).
Early Christianity developed among the pagan Greeks, and Greek thought played an important role in shaping the new religion as it emancipated itself from its Jewish roots (much of the Christian vision of the afterlife comes directly from Greek religious cults and Plato, so much so that Nietzsche labeled Christianity “Platonism for the people”). However, Christian thinking was always hostile to Greek religion. The term pagan (meaning civilian, in contrast to the Christian soldier of god) came to refer to those who worshipped nature, especially the Greeks, and then more generally to all non-Christians (other than the Jews). The early Christians, faced with the amazingly rich tradition of Greek stories, tended to allegorize them extensively to fit Christian doctrine (a practice continued with Roman stories). But once the Christians gained control of the Roman Empire (in the fourth century AD), they closed down Greek schools, attacked the shrines, stopped many traditional rituals (e.g., the Olympic Games), and suppressed the literature and art.
For a long time, the Greek heritage was lost to the West, known only (if at all) by Latin reinterpretations of Greek stories. Hence, the influence of classical Greek culture on the West and even a knowledge of the Greek language were virtually non-existent. During this period, although the outlines of many of the most famous stories were known (e.g., the Trojan War), the details came from very non-Greek sources and hence do not accurately reflect the visions of life in the original Greek texts. But in the early Renaissance (14th century), Greek scholars fleeing the forces of Islam started to move with their libraries into Italy from Byzantium and initiated a revival. From that point on, the authentic voice of classical Greek culture began to be heard again in Western Europe (a process enormously helped by the invention of printing in 1455), and for hundreds of years after that the work of scholars and artists provided a steady stream of printed texts, translations, and examples of Greek art, so that one can talk about a growing and direct influence of classical Greek thought on European culture for the past four hundred years (at least). This influence shows no sign of slowing down. Indeed, to judge from the number of translations of ancient Greek works in circulation in modern culture, their achievements are more popular than ever.
(1) The city-states (meaning the city and the adjacent land) were generally quite small in area and population (made up of citizens, slaves, resident aliens, women and children). The most populous city state, Athens, with an area of about 1000 square miles, had in 431 BC a population of about 310,000 (about 45,000 of whom were citizens). Sparta, by contrast, although occupying a larger and more fertile area of about 3000 square miles, had a population of about 12,000, the majority of whom were not citizens. Most of the city states were considerably smaller in area and population than Athens or Sparta.
(2) Other possible exceptions are the twin brothers Castor and Pollux (or Polydeuces), brothers of Helen and Clytaemnestra, who after death were allowed by Zeus to divide their time between heaven and Hades. Also, Ganymede, a royal prince of Troy, was so beautiful he was taken up to Olympus to serve as Zeus’ cup bearer and sexual playmate, and in the Odyssey we meet Ino, a daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia, who became a sea goddess after her death. In the Odyssey, Menelaus is promised an after life in the Elysian Fields, where life is delightful, because he is married to Helen, a daughter of Zeus. These stories, however, are exceptions which, in effect, prove the rule.
(3) These comments on the after life require a brief clarification. Over the centuries, there was, especially in the popular religious cults, a growing interest in the afterlife (something which may well be a symptom of troubled times, when the orthodox faith does not answer to the demands of ordinary people). But in the major works of literature, from Homer to the tragedians, there is no sense that life after death is anything to look forward to or that a significant part of the human personality survives (something equivalent to what we might call the soul). Characters do appeal to the spirits of the dead (as Orestes and Electra do in the Libation Bearers), and the ghosts of the dead do appear from time to time (e.g., the ghost of Patroclus in the Iliad, the shades of the dead Odysseus meets in the Odyssey, and the ghost of Clytaemnestra in the Eumenides), but such apparitions do not introduce any sense of vital life after death. The first fully developed sense of a significant afterlife where human beings are judged, rewarded, and punished comes in Plato’s Republic, which appears very late in the classical period, and it is significant that this detailed picture emerges in a book which is challenging traditional belief (especially Homer) at a time when that traditional belief has clearly failed to stop the Greeks spending years killing each other.
It is true that the idea of a judgment of some kind in the afterlife occurs as early as the Odyssey, where the name Rhadamanthus, one of a trio of judges, is mentioned and where there are some famous wrongdoers being punished (e.g., Tantalus and Sisyphus, among others). But there is no sense that the other shades are experiencing a specific afterlife based on the way they lived, and there is very little sense anywhere in the major works of literature that people believe in a moralized afterlife so much that it affects the way they live. In most cases, the punishments people fear occur in this life, not in the next.
(4) Those who would like a more detailed exploration of these terms should consult the following link: Tragedy and Comedy [http://www.siue.edu/~ejoy/eng208NotesOnComedyAndTragedy.htm] (part of a lecture on King Lear).
(5) Recently I saw a bumper sticker on a truck from Alaska which neatly summed up this Greek attitude: “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” Everyone may have to help pull the communal sled, but if you’re not the alpha male dog, you spend your life staring at […] the dog in front of you.
(6) The origins of dramatic comedy are easier to speculate about, since that form seems clearly to have originated in Greece, as in Europe, from spring festivals which featured all sorts of rambunctious dramas celebrating the passing of winter and the arrival of a new season of good weather.
(7) To illustrate the shift, you can attempt this easy experiment. Try breathing on your wrist with your mouth wide open. Then do the same with your lips pursed (as if you were trying to whistle). In every case, the breath coming from your wide open mouth will be warmer than the breath coming through your pursed lips. How can this be? The measuring device is the same (your wrist) and the source of the air is the same (your lungs). How can one be hot and one be cold? The only reasonable answer is that surely the form of the air is different in each case, and the different natural phenomena (hot and cold) are a product of the different formal arrangements of the air. I’m not claiming that the Greeks actually performed this experiment, by the way, although it’s tempting to think that they did, because that would make it one of the most remarkable simple experiments in the history of human thought.
(8) Plato seems to have believed that the fundamental formal unit of matter was a right-angled triangle with dimensions of 1, 2, and the square root of three, partly because of the mystical value placed on those numbers.
[Ian Johnston’s note on copyright:] This text is in the public domain and may be used by anyone for any purpose, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged, released February 2006.
[The source (go here to find author contact info) is Ian Johnston’s web page: http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/clas101/observations.htm
Changes made for posting on this Excellence in Literature webpage are noted in italics in brackets. References to notes by the author are indicated in bold parentheses such as (12) and the notes are found at the end of the text.]