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.
I am (finally!) beginning to catch up to where I had planned to be by this time in the Great Books of the Western World 10 Year Reading Plan. My (slightly modified version of the original) plan is to double up on the reading for the next few months. If (if!) I am able to do this, I will be able to catch up by the Spring, so stay tuned as we continue this journey. In the mean time, here are a few brief thoughts on the most recent reading, the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles:
As I noted in my comments on last month’s readings (from Plutarch), I have continued to see a theme of focus on leadership and government in the works we have read thus far this year. With this in mind, it is possible to compare the leadership of Christ over the apostles and of the apostles over the early Christian communities with the leadership of those figures whom Plutarch discusses in last month’s readings.
Like Numa and Lycurgus, we can certainly view Christ as a lawgiver. While a comparison of Christ-as-lawgiver/community-founder with Numa and/or Lycurgus as the same is the stuff dissertations are made of and I don’t plan to write a dissertation on this subject, there are some notable points of comparison and contrast that can be gotten at without the expenditure of much effort. Numa, for example, is referred to as a very pious individual by Plutarch; ostensibly, Numa derived the laws he delivered to the people through a divine medium. Similarly, of course, Christ, the new law-giver, comes with a new law that is of divine origin; notably, he also reorients the old law toward himself in his claim to be the divine figure who brought the earlier law.
It is also worth mentioning that one major contention that the Romans had with Christ and, later, with his followers was Christ’s claim of kingship, which seemed to be (and is, in the letters of St. Paul) a challenge to the authority of Caesar. Numa, as a founding figure of the Romans, then, stands in a sort of conflict with Christ in his claim of dominion.
The two historical (as opposed to mythological) figures discussed by Plutarch in last month’s readings, Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, also present quite insightful contrasts with the leadership of Christ and his apostles. One might compare, for instance, the deaths of Caesar and Christ. Both are killed by their own people for their claim to be king, both are betrayed by a friend, the last words of both before their respective deaths are cries of abandonment, but the nature of their claims are ultimately quite different: Caesar is murdered for grabbing ever greater amounts of power; Christ offers himself as a sacrifice on behalf of his people. It might be worth discussing this more when we read Dante in the future, given Dante’s placement of the murderers of Caesar (Cassius and Brutus) alongside the betrayer of Christ (Judas) in the mouths of Lucifer in the center of Hell.
There is much more that could be added here, but I will keep my remarks brief over the next several months as I seek to catch up in the reading list. I would be delighted to read and discuss any thoughts you might have about these readings. Leave a comment here to share your thoughts with us.