Sunday, 13 January 2019

Chaos and goodness: from Hesiod and Plato to Christianity and Nietzsche

What does Nietzsche mean when he says: ‘Christianity is Platonism for the masses’? An interesting essay, Chaos corrected: Hesiod in Plato’s creation myth, by E.E. Pender, gives us an idea.

The subject of the essay is Plato’s attempt, particularly in the Timaeus but also in the Republic, to establish a new creation myth for the Greeks that would supplant Hesiod’s Theogony, which Plato objected to on the grounds that it wasn’t sufficiently edifying and, indeed, that Hesiod’s depiction of the gods and their role in creating the universe was fundamentally wrong.

In particular, according to Pender, what Plato wants to correct in Hesiod is the ‘moral chaos’ of the Theogony, in which the gods are often portrayed as jealous and spiteful, engaged in plotting, deception and violence. For Plato, god is incapable of malevolence. He is by nature good and his motive in creating the universe is to advance goodness.
‘Unlike Hesiod’s Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus, Plato’s supreme god is not seeking to create a world order that will allow him simply to gain and then hold on to power. This god and those he creates are themselves good and their aim is to create further goodness.’
Furthermore, Pender says, into Hesiod’s universe, in which chaos is the primal force and strife and power politics define the relationship between the gods, Plato wants to interject a benign and rational being – a demiurge or craftsman-father – able to impose harmony and rationality. Whereas Hesiod identifies a universe permeated by disorder, out of which an ordered cosmos can never fully emerge, Plato sees a world infused with goodness, always striving to achieve perfectibility.

Plato also wants to correct Hesiod when it comes to defining the attributes of the Muses, the goddesses that inspire in the creation of art and the pursuit of knowledge. In Hesiod, the Muses exist to soothe grief and help men forget their troubles; but in Plato they lose their psychogogic qualities and acquire a more transcendental and metaphysical role, which is to guide the human soul (through philosophy and philosophical exercises) towards divine harmony and reason.

In Plato’s creation tale, then, Pender concludes, ‘the principle of goodness is eternally present, the triumph of order and reason is assured by design, human beings have the means to become like gods’.

In which case, to return to Nietzsche and his ‘Christianity is Platonism for the masses’ – a statement, it’s worth stressing, intended to insult Christianity, Platonism and the masses; we can now see that it is not a long road to travel to get from Plato’s ‘eternally present principle of goodness’ to Christianity’s depiction of God as the epitome of goodness; from Plato’s ‘triumph of order and reason assured by design’ to Christianity’s God the Creator and Jesus the embodiment of divine logos; or from ‘human beings [that] have the means to become like gods’, to Christianity’s belief in transfiguration, in which man, innately good (i.e. even if not born good, then always capable of it), aspires, via communion with God or redemption through Jesus, to become suffused by the divine.

* Chaos corrected: Hesiod in Plato’s creation myth is contained in the book Plato and Hesiod, which you can download as a PDF from here.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Theodoros Kolokotronis: ‘one of the leaders of our race’

One of my favourite parts in one of my favourite Nikos Kazantzakis’ books is the following from Travels in Greece: Journey to the Morea, in which the Cretan author reflects on the character of perhaps the foremost hero of the Greek War of Independence, Theodoros Kolokotronis, the Old Man of the Morea. I’ve always liked Kazantzakis’ description of Kolokotronis, which has him, for 50 years, patiently preparing for the fight against the Turks, for the moment when his life would begin and take meaning.

The Old Man of the Morea
Today as I sit in a Tripolitan coffeehouse watching the people and listening to their talk, I sense that if I were a young man living in Tripolis, I would concentrate – in order to save myself – upon the rich, aggressive and valiant soul of Kolokotronis. Here in Tripolis, air and mountain are still filled with his ample breath. From the days he spent as a merchant in Zakynthos, gazing at the mountains of Morea across the way, sighing:

I see the spreading sea, and afar the Morea,
Grief has seized me, and great yearning…

until his censure by the land that he liberated, and those final serene moments when Charon found him, Kolokotronis’ life was a dramatic, characteristic unfolding of a rich modern Greek soul: faith, optimism, tenacity, valour, a certain, practical mind, deceptive versatility, like Odysseus.

When the penpushers all lost their bearings, or the tin-soldier generals bickered among themselves, Kolokotronis would see the simplest, most effective solution. Gentle and softhearted when it served the great purpose, harsh and savage when necessary. Harsh and savage most of all with himself. When he served as a corsair on the ‘black ships’ he once found himself without tobacco. He opened his pipe and scraped it in order to get some burned tobacco to make a cigarette. But at the same instant he started to smoke, he felt ashamed. ‘Here’s a man for you,’ he muttered to himself with scorn. ‘Here’s a man who wants to save his country, and can’t even save himself from an inconsequential habit.’ And he flung the cigarette away.

Thus he conditioned and hardened himself, in order to be prepared. For years in foreign armies he studied the art of war, the ‘manual of arms’; aboard ship he learned the risalto, the assault; he made himself ready. And when the revolution burst out he was primed, fifty years old by then, organised from top to toe. Armed to the teeth. He had amassed knowledge by the quintal, cunning, bravery, wide experience; he wrought songs to relieve his ‘yearning’; by contributing an axiom at a crucial moment he would silence the unorganised chatter. Our modern Greek problems have not yet found more profound, humorous and epigrammatic expression.

He had both impulse and restraint, he knew how to retreat so that he could advance; hemmed in by enemies, Greeks and Turks, he was forced to mobilise all his bravery and wile so that the Race would not be lost. Often all would desert him, he would be left alone in the mountains, and then burst out weeping. He sobbed like the Homeric heroes, with his long hair and helmet; he sobbed and was refreshed. He regained his fortitude, formulated new schemes in his mind, sent off messages, involved the elders once more, mocked the Turks, conciliated the Greeks; and the struggle began again.

Kolokotronis, with all his faults and virtues, is one of the leaders of our race. Here in Tripolis, which he took with mind and sword, his scent still lingers dissipated in the air; with patience and concentration a youth should be able to reconstruct, as model and guide, the peerless Old Man. And thus, with a struggle now invisible and spiritual, to reconquer and ravish Tripolis.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Greek history: a never-ending story

This is how Isaac Asimov concludes his book, The Greeks: A Great Adventure.

‘History is a story without an end. Almost at its opening, Greek history dealt with the battle between Europe and Asia; between the men on one side of the Aegean Sea and the men on the other. It was Greece and Troy; then Greece and Persia; then Greece and the Ottoman empire. And it continues.’

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Isaac Asimov on the Spartans

Sparta was the dominant land power in Greece for two centuries, not that Isaac Asimov, in The Greeks: A Great Adventure, thought much of the Lacedaemonians: 

‘Sparta was never really suited to the task of leading Greece. The Greeks were at home on the sea and Sparta was not. The Greeks had interests from end to end of the Mediterranean and Sparta was interested, in her heart, only in the Peloponnese. The Greeks were quick, artistic and free and Spartans were slow-moving, dull and enslaved either to each other or to the military way of life. 

‘In later years, the Greeks of other city-states sometimes admired the Spartan way of life because it seemed so virtuous and seemed to lead Sparta to such military glory. However, they were wrong to do so. In art, literature, music, love of life, all that makes it worthwhile to be on the earth, Sparta contributed nothing. She had only a cruel, inhuman way of life to offer, dependent on a brutal slavery of most of her population, with only a kind of blind animal courage as a virtue and her way of life soon became more show than substance. It was her reputation that saved her for a while when her core was rotten. She seemed strong as long as she won victories but whereas other states could withstand defeats and rise again, Sparta lost her domination of Greece after a single defeat. The loss of one major battle [at Leuctra, 371 BC] was to expose her and dispose of her.’

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Leda and the Swan, by W.B. Yeats

Leda and the Swan

W.B. Yeats, 1865 - 1939

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
                    Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

I’ve been reading Alberto Moravia…

I’ve been reading a few of the novels of the Italian writer Alberto Moravia – Conjugal Love, Boredom, Contempt and The Voyeur. They’re all good and share themes of intellectual, creative and male impotence. Boredom – about the obsession an artist develops against his instincts for a teenage girl – is the best of the novels; The Voyeur – about the intellectual, political and sexual antagonisms between a French literature professor and his father – is the least interesting.

Contempt is the novel Jean-Luc Godard filmed in 1963. I've previously written about Le Mépris here. The film is fairly faithful to the book and where it deviates from it, it enhances it. Le Mépris is, in fact, a sensational work of art. Both the film and the book, as I said in my previous post, are ‘among other things, a meditation on Homer’s Odyssey, [and] a celebration of Mediterranean landscape’. The story involves a struggling writer employed to write a screenplay of The Odyssey. He is unenthusiastic about the project, but takes it to earn money to impress his beautiful wife.

In the novel, the German film director Rheingold, explaining why he's interested in making a film of The Odyssey, says that ‘the Anglo-Saxon races have the Bible and you Mediterranean peoples, on the other hand, have Homer… To the Mediterranean peoples, Homer is what the Bible is to the Anglo-Saxons.’

Elsewhere in the novel, the writer Molteni objecting to the German director’s modern, psychological interpretation of The Odyssey says that the northern European wants to change Homer's ‘bright and luminous world, enlivened by the winds, glowing with sunshine, populated by quick-witted lively beings, into a kind of dark, visceral recess, bereft of colour and form, sunless, airless.’

Indeed, the ascendancy of the Bible over Homer is the greatest catastrophe to have befallen Greek civilisation. ‘Bright and luminous’ Greek culture was superseded by a culture formed in deserts and caves. In fact, if anyone wants to appreciate how repellent and un-Greek Biblical culture is, then one only has to read – as I have recently read – the climax of the Bible, Revelations, and compare the personality of John the Theologian and his nauseating, emetic ravings, with that of Odysseus, ‘a man’, as Moravia says, ‘without prejudices and, if necessary, without scruples, subtle, reasonable, intelligent, irreligious, skeptical, sometimes even cynical.’

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Nikos Gatsos: The Knight and Death

This is a good translation by Diana Gilliland Wright of Nikos Gatsos’s The Knight and Death (Ο ιππότης κι ο θάνατος).

Monday, 26 November 2018

Philip Sherrard: on the grizzly fate of Byzantine emperors

Philip Sherrard is known for his seminal translations into English of all the main twentieth century Greek poets – Seferis, Ritsos, Eltytis, Sikelianos, Cavafy, etc – and for his numerous books on Christianity and Greek Orthodoxy, particularly his four-volume English translation of the Philokalia, which comprises the core spiritual texts of the Orthodox church, to which Sherrard was a convert and a traditionalist adherent of.

At some point later on, I will post on Sherrard’s book, The Greek East and the Latin West, which examines the metaphysical and ideological schism separating Greek Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and how this has contributed to the modern western world’s slippage, according to Sherrard, into spiritual dereliction and systematic barbarism. The book may be pertinent in the current circumstances.

But, for this post, I want to draw attention to Sherrard’s book, Byzantium, which is an introduction to the empire, its politics, history and culture. It was published in 1967, as part of Time-Life’s Great Ages of Man series, and is as immaculately written as it is illustrated. My favourite chapter is the one on the nature of the emperor in Byzantium – An Emperor Under God.

Here, Sherrard manages to get to a great Byzantine paradox: that while the rulers of the empire were regarded as divine – ‘as the chief representatives of Christ and of God Himself’ – and, indeed, God-like, since the emperor’s duty was to bring ‘all mankind into ordered harmony within a universal state under the ordered rule of the monarchy’, thereby replicating God’s mission of bringing ‘all heavenly principalities into an ordered harmony under His absolute rule’; then how do we account for the fact that throughout the 1,000 years of its history, the Byzantine Empire was known for the precariousness of its throne and for the ruthlessness of its court politics – the viciousness with which supposedly God-like emperors were replaced or overthrown – all of which resulted in 29 of the 88 emperors who ruled the empire meeting grizzly fates – decapitated, poisoned, stabbed and so on – while another 13, to avoid such an end, retreated to live in monasteries?

Sherrard offers this explanation for the Byzantines’ apparent disregard for the sacredness of their emperors. Since, Sherrard says, an emperor emerged by divine decree – i.e. it was the will of God and the will of God is by definition opaque – this meant that the ‘only certain method of knowing the divine will was to see who actually occupied the throne. In other words, all means of becoming an emperor were legitimate – so long as they were successful. An unsuccessful attempt to reach the throne, on the other hand, was unforgivable and disastrous for the would-be ruler.’

‘Furthermore,’ Sherrard goes on, ‘what God had given He could also take away. An emperor’s throne might be seized from him in as unpredictable and sudden a manner as it had been given to him in the first place – and the consequences for him were usually as terrible as if he had tried to seize power and failed.’