The Beautiful and the Very Beautiful

In the course of arguing in favor of the belief that God created the universe ex nihilo, the third century church father St. Methodius of Olympus asserts that “we must say that it is in the nature of things for arts to be produced in men out of what has no existence.” While the intent of Methodius’s treatise is not to discuss the nature of art nor of human creativity more generally, the assumption underlying his argument is nonetheless a worthy starting place for a discussion of these subjects within a Christian paradigm. Methodius is arguing, in short, that just as human beings create works of art, seemingly, from nothing, so did God create the world from nothing. If man is capable of such a thing, Methodius asks his opponents, then is not God as well capable and to an even greater degree? From this can readily be extrapolated the underlying assumption that this creativity inherent in human nature is an aspect of the likeness of man to God. One can argue from human creativity to divine creativity precisely because human creativity is derived from and is, in a manner of speaking, an imitation of divine creativity. Furthermore, it is in the application of this creative faculty that the difference between the artist, strictly speaking, and the artisan—or, to use terminology of a more recent innovation, the difference between the fine arts and the arts more generally—is to be discerned.

The Genesis account of the creation of the cosmos and man provides scriptural substantiation for these extrapolations from Methodius’s statement. The opening of the book, of course, proclaims, “In the beginning God created . . .” (Gen 1:1). And this is all that the reader approaching the Bible for the first time knows about God by the end of the first chapter: he creates. He creates “the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1); light (1:3); the firmament (1:6); land (1:9); plants and trees (1:11); the sun, the moon, and the stars (1:16); fish and birds (1:20); land animals (1:24); and, at last, human beings (1:26). He is, in addition, a creator who admires his own work a great deal. As he creates, the reader finds that God stops occasionally to observe and proclaim of what he has created that “it was good” (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, and 25) and, at last, following the creation of man, “very good” (Gen 1:31). It is not too much to imagine God as an artist at work, after each addition putting down his brush for a moment, stepping back from the easel, and commenting in approval at what he has accomplished so far: it is good.

The choice of wording in the Septuagint, the popular Greek translation from the original Hebrew of Genesis used by many early Greek-speaking Christians, Methodius included, is indicative of the general orientation of the passage as a whole. The Septuagint records God’s proclamation that his work is καλόν and, in the final emphatic iteration of Genesis 1:31, καλὰ λίαν. The word καλόν carries with it the meaning of “good,” as is expressed in most English translations and in the original Hebrew, but with the additional meanings of “noble” and, perhaps most importantly for the connotations of this passage, “beautiful.” And, following the creation of man, the creation is very good, very noble and very beautiful.

The reader approaching Genesis for the first time, then, will find that God is a creator and an admirer of what is beautiful. At the apex of his creation is the thing that makes it in the end not only “beautiful” but “very beautiful,” namely, a creature “in our image, after our likeness” (Gen 1:26). The obvious implication is that these beings whom “God created . . . in his own image, / in the image of God he created him; / male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27) must, given that they are indeed like him, also be creators and admirers of the good and the beautiful. Further infused into their nature—and it may be assumed by the reader of this account that this too derives from their likeness to God—is the attribute of rulership. God proclaims just before (Gen 1:26) and just after (Gen 1:28) creating man that they will “have dominion” over the earth and over its sundry other inhabitants.

These two characteristics of man as derived from his likeness to God, his creativity and his dominion, are brought together in the vocation assigned to the first man by God, that of gardner. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it,” says Genesis 2:15. Similarly, the primeval man is called upon by God to exercise both dominion and creativity in his naming of the animals. “Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them,” says Genesis 2:19. “And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” The man, through the exercise of his own creative faculty, adds to and, in a sense, completes the work of God. While “God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens,” it is man who decides “what he would call them.” While it was God who “planted a garden in Eden” (Gen 2:8), it is man who is called upon “to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). And even God waits to “see what” he will do (Gen 2:18). While the cosmos is καλόν—good and beautiful—from the moment of its creation by God, it is only καλὰ λίαν—very good and very beautiful—following the creation of man.

While he does not seem to have had the biblical story of creation in mind in this instance, T. S. Eliot’s comments on the creative activity of the poet in his essay on “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism” serve as a useful commentary on the creativity inherent in man’s nature as it appears in Genesis. Poetry, he says, is able to “make people see the world afresh, or some new part of it. It may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible and sensible world.”

More true, perhaps, in the postlapsarian world than in the world of the primeval garden, what Eliot draws attention to here is the ability of the poet—and of the artist more generally—to participate in the divine creative activity by constantly renewing and revealing the world. The gardner participates in the creative activity of the divine by assisting in the yearly process of the apparent death and rebirth of nature. The poet does the same by revealing and identifying the world of the subconscious, thereby allowing man to make sense of the world of experience, both inner and outer. The painter reveals and renews the world on his canvass by allowing the mind to focus on the beauty of the singular phenomenon he has taken as his subject. In this “evasion of ourselves” and “of the visible and sensible world” we behave destructively; through the renewal and revelation made possible in and through our artistic faculties, we participate in creation.

In his Critique of Judgement, Immanuel Kant reasons in a similar direction when attempting to define the sublime. According to Kant, “it comes that the sublime is not to be looked for in the things of nature, but only in our own ideas.” There is, after all, he continues, “nothing . . . in nature, no matter how great we may judge it to be, which, regarded in some other relation, may not be degraded to the level of the infinitely little, and nothing so small which in comparison with some still smaller standard may not for our imagination be enlarged to the greatness of the world.”

Man’s imagination so far surpasses nature, then, that it is not in nature itself, but in this activity of man upon the world that one finds the truly sublime. “Sublimity, therefore,” he writes a bit later, “does not reside in any of the things of nature, but only in our own mind, in so far as we may become conscious of our superiority over nature within, and thus also over nature without us (as exerting influence upon us).” And it is the artist who allows us to realize and to exercise our dominion over nature through his creative endeavors. Yet again, we see that creation is  καλόν before man’s creative cooperation with God and dominion over the world, but can only be καλὰ λίαν—to be identified with the sublime—with man’s active, imaginative participation.

What Kant refers to as the sublime, Richard Wagner describes as “Das Wunder,” or wonder, in his Opera and Drama. “The poet,” he writes, “must . . . take the phenomena of Life and compress them from their viewless many-member-edness into a compact, easily surveyable shape.” Each facet of the cosmos is, after all, individually καλόν, but only collectively, only when viewed as a whole, and only when viewed after the introduction of the human element, καλὰ λίαν. The poet or the artist must take up the various individually καλόν elements and bring them into such an intelligible and orderly unity that they become καλὰ λίαν as a complete composite. “In virtue of this Wonder,” says Wagner, “the poet is able to display the most measureless conjunctures in an all-intelligible unity.” Like the primeval gardner, the poet makes sense of the created order by endowing it with a humanly orderliness. “The poetic daring,” he continues, “which gathers Nature’s utterances into such an image, can first for us be crowned with due success, precisely because through Experience we have gained a clear insight into Nature’s essence.”

Wagner is quick to point out, however, that this “insight into Nature’s essence” gained through poetry is not the mere building up of systems of doctrine and dogma. “Now, for the operation of its message, the poetising intellect has absolutely no concern with Faith, but only with an understanding through the Feeling,” he writes. Writing of T. S. Eliot, Russell Kirk offers an assessment of the relationship between Eliot’s poetry and Eliot’s faith that provides illumination for Wagner’s claim. “One does not look to Eliot—or to Dante, or to Shakespeare—for irrefragable demonstration of dogma or for an ingenious philosophical system,” writes Kirk. He concludes, “All that poetry of Eliot’s kind can attain is to express one man’s understanding through emotion.” The poet is able to distill and to crystallize experience and emotion. The poet and the artist do not concoct grand theories to explain phenomena; rather, they are able to bring the shared phenomena of human existence to greater clarity and depth.

W. F. Hegel, in his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, similarly finds that “the universal need for expression in art lies . . . in man’s rational impulse to exalt the inner and outer world into a spiritual consciousness for himself, as an object in which he recognizes his own self.” It is the task of the artist, then, to take up the material provided by nature, both the nature internal to man and the nature external to man, and to transform this nature into something intelligible by man because it is, in part, a product of man. The first man’s act of naming the animals, for example, allowed him to make these animals into something intelligible to him by creatively endowing them with some piece of himself through the names by which he calls them. He did not, notably, create a system of classification for the animal world as a whole. Rather, he knew them each individually and experientially rather than systematically and theoretically.

This provides a line of demarcation by which the artist may be measured against the artisan, or, for that matter, the scientist. While the artisan and the scientist deal in similar matter, they do so for quite different purposes. It is not the prerogative of the artist to systematically explore and classify the material world, as it is for the scientist, for example; the prerogative of the artist, instead, is to reveal and renew that material world. The job of the scientist, in short, is to explain, while the job of the artist is to appreciate. Each of these methods leads to understanding, though of different sorts.

The artisan is closer to the artist in that he works to shape the materials of the natural world into an aesthetically pleasing shape. What is lacking, however, is the component of creativity. The difference here is like the difference between the first, prelapsarian vocation of the primeval man and the second, given as part of the curse following the Fall. While he was at first a gardner, placed in “Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15), he became a farmer. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” says God to Adam, “in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen 3:17–19). While the gardner and the farmer both work in the same material of soil, water, plants, and sunshine, the two perform their respective works for divergent reasons. The gardner will “work” and “keep” the earth; he performs his work as a creative participation with nature. By bringing into it human orderliness, he beautifies the natural landscape, and through human creativity he assists the natural process. The farmer, on the other hand, toils that “by the sweat of [his] face [he] shall eat bread.” While he must cooperate with nature, he does so in order to grow the food necessary to survival. Farming, like the work of the artisan, is a necessity. It is what must be done for survival. Gardening, like the work of the artist, is a superfluity performed out of an innate need in man to bring order and to create, but not out of material necessity. It is always one feature of any garden that it is beautiful. It is possible for a garden to consistent entirely of flowers and other plants that will never be eaten but only gazed upon with an admiring eye. The same is not true of the farmer’s field. The field is rarely beautiful and, when it is, the beauty is at best an incidental byproduct of the similarity of the farmer’s vocation to that of the gardner. The intent of great stretches of straight rows of cornstalks is always that they be harvested and consumed, never that they be gazed upon, never that they be admired. The farmer and the artisan may occasionally, and typically accidently, make something καλόν, but only the work of the gardner and the work of the artist can be declared in truth καλὰ λίαν.

Liberal education and a free society

In a letter, written in 1813, to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson explains the steps taken by the Virginia “legislature after the Declaration of Independance” to eradicate the vestiges of the old world aristocracy that had taken hold on the American landscape.[1] First, he says, they “passed a law abolishing entails” and “this was followed by one abolishing the privilege of Primogeniture.” He claims that “these laws . . . laid the axe to the root of Pseudo-aristocracy. And had another which I prepared been adopted by the legislature, our work would have been compleat.”[2] This final law, not adopted by the state of Virginia, included as its central component a plan to provide for the equality of opportunity of all people through the discernment of what Jefferson called a “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents.”[3] Opposing this “natural aristocracy” to the “Pseudo-aristocrac[ies]” of physical strength and inherited wealth and titles, Jefferson saw the cultivation of a true aristocracy as an endeavor essential the continued life and vitality of the new American Republic. By ensuring that all Americans had access to at least a rudimentary version of a liberal education, this natural aristocracy could be cultivated and prepared for positions of leadership in the republic. Simultaneously, the very process by which this natural aristocracy was discerned would allow all Americans to be provided with the foundational knowledge and inculcated with the civic virtue necessary to a citizenry that is able to sustain a free society.

In his letter to Adams, Jefferson then briefly describes the framework of the “Bill for the more general diffusion of learning” he had proposed.[4] His plan would “divide every county” of the state of Virginia “into wards of 5. or 6. miles square.” Within “each ward . . . a free school” would be established “for reading, writing and common arithmetic.” From each of these ward schools, an “annual selection” would be made “of the best subjects . . . who might receive at the public expence a higher degree of education at a district school.” There would, in turn, be a selection “from these district schools . . . [of] a certain number of the most promising subjects to be compleated at an University, where all the useful sciences should be taught.” By means of this process of common education for all and selection of the best students for higher levels of education, Jefferson says, “Worth and genius would thus have been sought out from every condition of life, and compleatly prepared by education for defeating the competition of wealth and birth for public trusts.”[5] Jefferson sought to supplant the aristocracy of “wealth and birth,” replacing it with the “natural aristocracy” of “virtue and talents” in a single generation, through his program of public education.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson provides more detail on the plan of education he had proposed, including the sort of curriculum appropriate to students selected for each level of education and the overall goals of this program. While his letter to Adams lists only “reading, writing and common arithmetic” as the disciplines to be taught in the first level of schools, to which “every person . . . [is] entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it,”[6] his Notes on the State of Virginia indicates a decidedly wider purview for the ward schools. “The first stage of this education being the schools of the hundreds,” writes Jefferson, “wherein the great mass of the people will receive their instruction, the principal foundations of future order will be laid here.”[7] As such, there will, undoubtedly, be a focus upon the basic skills of writing, reading, and arithmetic. These schools will also, however, ensure that children’s “memories may . . . be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history.” The education at this initial stage is, in fact, “to be chiefly historical.”[8] Jefferson explains,

History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.

This first level of education is that which will be received by all people. This is, therefore, the stage at which it is most important to instill a knowledge of their heritage and of human nature, knowledge that is essential to the development of the ability to identify and eliminate incipient tyranny.

In addition to this induction into historical knowledge, “the first elements of morality too may be instilled into their minds.” This morality, writes Jefferson, is not yet to be that of “the Bible and Testament” as the “judgments” of these young children “are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries.” Instead, the morality inculcated in the children should be such as is conducive to the development of that civic virtue which is necessary to members of a free society. It should, writes Jefferson, be “such as, when further developed as their judgments advance in strength, may teach them how to work out their own greatest happiness, by showing them that it does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed them, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.”[9]

The morality the children are to be taught, then, are the virtues of self-reliance, hard work, and responsibility.  In short, they are to be inculcated with the virtues of an industrious and freedom-loving people.

Following this basic education, most of the students will return to their homes prepared to take up the tasks both of their respective occupations as well as the preservation of a free society. Some, however, “whom either the wealth of their parents or the adoption of the state shall destine to higher degrees of learning, will go on to the grammar schools, there to be instructed in the languages.”[10] In a prescient forewarning of what was to come in both the grammar schools and institutions of higher learning in the United States, Jefferson notes that “the learning of Greek and Latin, I am told, is going into disuse in Europe . . . but it would be very ill-judged in us to follow their  example in this instance.”[11] The memory at this stage in the child’s life, “from eight to fifteen or sixteen years of age,” is so “susceptible and tenacious of impressions” that “it seems precisely fitted to the powers of this period” to acquire “the most useful languages ancient and modern.”[12] In addition, “the books put into the hands of the youth for this purpose may be such as will at the same time impress their minds with useful facts and good principles.” By this means, the memory will be exercised and the intellect excited. This stimulation of the mind through the activity of the acquisition of language and the contemplation of the wisdom gleaned from those texts used in language instruction preserves the mind from the “idleness” that would allow it to become “lethargic and impotent.” “As soon as they are of sufficient age,” says Jefferson, “it is supposed they will be sent on from the grammar schools to the university, which constitutes our third and last stage, there to study those sciences which may be adapted to their views.”[13]

Having explained his proposed system of education, Jefferson concludes with an explanation of the logic of his plan. One of the goals of his program is “to avail the state of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated.”[14] This equality of opportunity through equal access to education is of mutual benefit to both the citizen and the state. The citizen will be allowed to exercise his abilities and attain his full potential rather than languishing in a condition below his natural endowments. The state, in turn, will benefit from the education this person receives through his ability to use his talents in the service of his country.

In spite of Jefferson’s disdain for Plato’s Republic as a work filled with “whimsies, . . . puerilities, . . . unintelligible jargon . . . [and] nonsense,”[15] Jefferson’s plan is reminiscent of Plato’s plan for education and thought on the possibilities of movement from one social class to another.[16] Jefferson, however, avoids the utopianism of Plato as he does not, as Plato does, propose a radical restructuring of society, including the elimination of the family and the organic local community. Instead, Jefferson proposes a practical means by which to accomplish a similar goal.

“But of the views of this law,” Jefferson continues, “none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty.”[17] Although only a relative few would directly benefit from the higher levels of education in Jefferson’s plan, all would be enabled to attain an education that would provide them with the knowledge and habits necessary to citizens of a republic and members of a free society. The rudimentary liberal education each received would make it possible for each to seek his own happiness and to contribute to the good of the nation as a whole.

While the implementation of Jefferson’s plan today is impractical as it would entail a massive and infeasible overhaul of the American public education system, there is a great deal of insight to be gained from his vision, which, in turn, can be applied to education today. Jefferson’s central goal in the first level of education, for example, is a worthy central goal for primary and secondary schools today. The dual emphasis on teaching historical knowledge and inculcating moral virtue in the course of instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic is certain to provide the sort of education that a free society requires, and that students in many American schools are not being provided today. Such an education-for-liberty presents a stark contrast with the vocationalism and moral bankrupcy which currently permeate public education and are certain to produce an ignorant and ineffective electorate.

Similarly, Jefferson’s emphasis on the knowledge of language in adolescence is sound advice that could easily, and no doubt with great rewards, be implemented at the primary and secondary levels. Greek and Latin, in particular, are languages that put one in touch with the heritage of Western Civilization, grant one access to the wealth of wisdom recorded in these languages, and contribute to the development of logical thinking in children. This latter point, especially, is one that might be emphasized in response to the current clamoring after the rather nebulous and ever-shifting skill of “critical thinking.” A mastery of the English language and a fair knowledge of Latin or Greek and one additional European language seems hardly too much to ask of graduates from America’s high schools, yet it is a great deal more than is being asked now.

Ultimately, what Jefferson is proposing is a liberal education adapted to the needs and abilities of each citizen, which will, in turn, contribute to the greater good of the nation as a whole. In so doing, he undermines the pseudo-aristocracies of wealth and birth which had led to the despotisms of the old world while simultaneously avoiding the opposite extreme, which is taking hold in the United States now, of an enforced and artificial equality. Jefferson’s plan of an informed and virtuous citizenry coupled with equality of access to quality education for persons of natural talent is worthy of serious consideration today. A liberal education of the sort outlined by Jefferson is the only kind of education suited to a people who possess liberty and wish to keep it.

[1] Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, October 28, 1813, in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams–Jefferson Letters (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 389.

[2] Ibid., 389–390.

[3] Ibid., 388.

[4] Ibid., 390.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Boston: Lilly and Wait, 1832), 153.

[7] Ibid., 154.

[8] Ibid., 156.

[9] Ibid., 154.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 154–155.

[12] Ibid., 155.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, July 5, 1814, in Cappon, The Adams–Jefferson Letters, 432.

[16] On which, see Plato, The Republic 451–457 and 415, respectively.

[17] Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 155.

Child sacrifice and drama (Agamemnon)

It has been a great pleasure to continue to work my way once more through these Greek dramas as part of the Great Books of the Western World reading plan. There is so much here that it is difficult to know where to begin.

One aspect of drama itself that has long interested me is its ties to religious ritual. In ancient Greece, the drama grew out of the worship of the gods. Throughout the classical period, there was an altar in the center of the stage, lest the roots of the drama in worship and sacrifice be forgotten. When drama declined following the collapse of the Roman Empire (though I would aver that it declined long before that), it was largely replaced by Christian liturgy. One can see, for example, evidence of this in the frequent calls of the early medieval Church Fathers to avoid the theater in favor of attendance at the services of the Church’s liturgical cycle — matins and vespers, mass and compline, and so on. And rightfully so, I might add; St. John Chrysostom’s condemnation of the theaters is hardly a form of proto-puritanism. It is, rather, a recognition that the theaters — far from being the place of presentation for great literary achievements — had become showplaces for pornographic nonsense. It’s often forgotten today, but there is an indubitable relationship between concern for the mind and concern for morals (witness, as a case study, Bertrand Russell’s inability to develop a coherent philosophical justification for his general outlook, closely related to his begin a philanderer).

Drama was not to remain dead, however. It, like philosophy, art, music, and the other liberal and fine arts, was merely waiting to be reborn in the high middle ages in a form purified by the crucible of Christian faith. As in ancient Greece, drama grew once again out of ritual. The liturgical worship of the Church gave birth to the mystery and, later, the moral plays of the middle ages and, eventually, formed the trajectory that led to Shakespeare.

Aeschylus’s plays, and the Agamemnon in particular, stand out to me as particularly fascinating exemplars of what seem to be holdovers from primitive Greek ritual. In particular, Agamemnon seems to me almost certainly to feature some remnant of rituals of child-sacrifice. Agamemnon himself, of course, is guilty of sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia. And then there are the other child-murders in his family, such as the famous child-murder and cannibalism in the story of Thyestes. There are some biblical scholars, so I have read, who believe that the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is a sort of dramatization of the Israelite abandonment of child-sacrifice, a practice that remained quite common in the ancient world, including among those peoples who lived around and among the Israelites. The story of Agamemnon seems to be such a moment in the history of the Greeks as well. Of course, infanticide was never abandoned by the Greeks, and it may be argued that this makes them different from the Israelites in an important way, and it does. Yet, it also seems that there was, especially by the Roman period, a certain unease with the practice and a shame that attached to it.

I am reminded here of the arguments of Chesterton in his Everlasting Man, one of which concerns the Roman abhorrence of the Carthaginian practice of infant-immolation. This is, says Chesterton, proof positive that while the Romans worshiped gods, who may be angels or God misunderstood, the Carthaginians worshiped demons. And hence the Roman Empire became, eventually, the vehicle for the destruction of Carthage and, later, the spread of Christianity. If this is so, and I think Chesterton is right, it all begins with the Greeks.

Man’s law, God’s law (Antigone)

It has been wonderful to have the opportunity to reread some of these great Greek dramas for the Great Books of the Western World reading plan. I had forgotten just how excellent are so many of them, and the works of Sophocles are by no means the least. It is a shame that we will not be returning to Sophocles again for several years in the reading plan.

I once presented Antigone, in a somewhat simplified version (not because of ability but because of time), to my 8th graders as an outstanding early example of a point that Martin Luther King would make so eloquently in 20th century America: that the law of man is not the law of God and that when the two come into conflict it is God’s law that must be followed.

Rereading the drama in whole again I began to reflect on the way that ideas are born, live and change, and sometimes, though very rarely, die in history, and on the way that small innovations can have profound ramifications in the least likely places. Would there, in short, have been a Civil Rights Movement in the modern United States had it not been for Sophocles?

Of course, Sophocles is not the only exemplar here. There seems to have been a movement during this time toward a new way of thinking about God, man, and the world; I believe it was Huxley who coined the term “Axial Age” to refer to this era of nearly universal and significant change in outlook. Christopher Dawson’s thought on the centrality of religion to culture has also often focused on this era, though I’m not sure that he chose any special name for it. There was a movement, it seems, from nature-centered religions (and, therefore, cultures) which saw human activity as necessitating an imitation of nature. Dawson links this to the early agriculturalists who found that through imitating the natural processes of plant growth they could produce their own fields of crops. The result was a worship of nature, and the belief in nature as the standard for human activity, including in the moral sphere.

It was during this Axial Age, however, that there is a widespread recognition of the insufficiency of nature as a model for human activity. Man, now settled agriculturalists, began to look for another standard, an extra-natural or supernatural existent from which could be derived another set of standards transcending the order of the merely natural. In China, the result is Lao Tzu’s notion of the Tao — natural, yet transcendent at once. In Mesopotamia, the transformation of the tribal warrior-deity Yahweh into the Supreme God of all nations, surpassing even his own name, in the thought of the Prophets. In India, the movement away from the simplistic materialism and crass magician tricks of the Vedas toward the intellectualizing, complex, and mystical Hinduism of the Upanishads. And, of course, in Greece, the movement away from the relatively simple worldview of Homer toward the philosophy of Plato, aiming toward another world as the true.

Running from fate (Oedipus Rex)

One aspect of the story of Oedipus that has long intrigued me is that Oedipus, in a sense, brings his fate upon himself by attempting to run from it while simultaneously, if unconsciously, seeking it out. This running from fate begins, of course, when his parents attempt to abandon him on the mountainside after they hear the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. This attempt to escape from fate, however, only pushes him further toward his fate by giving him the false assurance that the couple who adopts him are the parents referred to in the same prophecy when he hears it as an adult. His runs again, fleeing from the home in which he was raised in order to escape his fate and yet falls again into it when he encounters and kills his real father along the road and unknowingly marries his mother after saving Thebes from the Sphinx.

In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus evinces this ability to simultaneously run toward and away from fate through the play. He pursues his fate through the questions he asks even while he attempts to run away from it, hoping that the answers to his questions will reveal that he is innocent.

In the light of last month’s reading of the Iliad, there is a great deal of comparison to be made between Achilles and Oedipus in the way that each grapples with his fate. Where Oedipus goes wrong, it seems, is in his failure to accept his fate. Boethius’s quite Greco-Roman notion of accepting one’s fate with a sort of virtuous resignation comes to mind here. One wonders, given that his avoidance of his fate is what walks him into it, how things might have worked out for poor Oedipus had he adopted Boethius’s advice.


What is life?

I have not posted for some time here because I have been consumed with my studies. As the semester draws to a close, I will spend the next few months catching up on both my reading and my blogging, focusing, of course, on the Great Books of the Western World in particular. The next several posts will be somewhat out of the order in which these works are listed in our reading plan because I have been selective with those I have been able to sneak in here and there while reading, choosing those I was most interested in at the moment rather than whatever was next on the list.

For now, though, we are on track as I will be here briefly discussing Homer’s Iliad. It is fitting, it seems to me, that the title of the last work of last year’s reading was What is Life? Although that book is about a quite different topic, the question is an apt one to apply to Homer as well, and this work especially. (To be honest, it could be applied with equal force to nearly any of the Great Books).

This is the heart of the question that Achilles must answer when he chooses what sort of life he will live. His famous choice of two fates–to live a long, peaceful life or a short, glorious one–is one of the defining moments of the story. And it is, in a sense, the sort of choice that each of us must make. Behind this choice lies that question: what is life? What is the purpose and the value of a human life? For what are we intended? Achilles’s choice is well-known enough: glory–and an early death to go with it.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus visits Achilles in the underworld. During this visit, Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a poor farmer on earth than be dead. I don’t recall that it’s ever made explicit, but it seems evident to me that if Achilles were given a second chance he would choose a different fate for himself.

Shakespeare in a Year

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Shakespeare in 1616 (and because I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a very long time), I’ve decided to dedicate 2016 to reading through the complete works of Shakespeare. My reading plan, which consists (for the most part) of a work a week, is here. We will, more or less, be moving in order through Shakespeare’s career from the comedies to the histories and tragedies. We will finish up with the poetic works. You will notice that there are only 50 weeks here. The additional time in the year (about a week and a half this year) I will leave open as time to complete any reading that I wasn’t able to finish earlier in the year or perhaps tack on some bonus material. Along with reading the play, I will also be watching at least a few of the most popular movie versions of each and reviewing them on my blog. Please join in any weeks that interest you!