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.
The literature of the ancient world, including Mesopotamian works like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Greek works such as the epics of Homer, and the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid, while written about certain great individuals, demonstrate a general lack of interest in the inner life of the individual and of any concern for anything but the greatest of persons. In all three of these outstanding and demonstrative examples, the thoughts and motivations of the heroes are left largely unexplored and the very existence of anyone outside of their ruling warrior class almost entirely ignored. Perhaps most importantly, there is little recognition of the power of the individual to affect his own fate or the circumstances of the world into which he has been placed; rather, even the greatest of individuals is subject entirely to powers beyond their comprehension or control.
In contrast, in the literature of the Middle Ages, there is a trajectory which begins perhaps with Augustine’s monumental autobiography The Confessions and culminates in the works of William Shakespeare. The literature of the Late Middle Ages and the Renaissance exhibit a more intense and probing interest in the individual than the literature of any previous age, as well one of the fullest recognitions of the power of the individual to shape his own fate and of the value of the perspective of formerly marginalized classes and categories of individuals. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are one of the finest examples of this new awareness of the presence and power of the person.
The Wife of Bath, for example, arguably the most fully developed character in the work, is granted an extended self-examination in her prologue that is nearly twice the length of her tale, which itself is also autobiographical in its moral. In the prologue to her tale, she confesses to her many marriages and engages in an extended self-justification through rather tortuous interpretations of biblical stories and injunctions in an attempt to avoid the cognitive dissonance which might otherwise result from the juxtaposition of her thoroughly medieval piety and her thoroughly human libido. Whereas she, if for no other reason than her sex, might have been a peripheral and easily dismissed character in any ancient work, the treatment of the Wife of Bath by Chaucer is thorough, empathic, and characterized by a refusal to rely on trite cliches and stereotypes. What emerges is a living character far different from anything in previous literature.
The Pardoner, another character in the Canterbury Tales, is a similarly exhibitive example of Chaucer’s ability to enter into and speak on behalf of a variety of subjectivities. While Chaucer’s treatment of the Pardoner is less empathic than is his treatment of the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner is nonetheless granted the opportunity to divulge his innermost thoughts and underlying motivations. His tale, the moral of which is to avoid avarice, the vice which the Pardoner himself is most guilty of, is autobiographical in its demonstration of his hypocrisy. Like the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner becomes a living character with all of the hidden desires, self-justifications, and flaws of an actual person.
It is an interesting, though not entirely ironic, feature of atheism that more than not its best arguments against Christianity are those which are made upon the principles it derives, through its own cultural heritage, from Christianity. This is the case, to use one very great example, with the very use of reason as a weapon against faith. The belief that reason is capable of discovering truth is an old Christian superstition that depends, with total unsubstantiated faith, upon a belief in the reasonableness of the world, the trustworthiness of the human senses and rational faculties, and, as if those were not enough, upon the attainable of truth itself. That’s a great leap to take for anyone, especially for someone who believes that all human thought is merely the movement of chemicals in the brain of a bipedal ape which possesses no more cosmic significance than the wind blowing through the trees.
The principled objector whose principles fit better into the philosophy he objects to than into his own position is just what we encounter with this book. When he’s not busy with inane and insane conspiracy theories, Wells attacks Christianity in the form of the Roman Catholic Church for the moral shortcomings of so many Christians throughout history. The real punchline, seemingly unnoticed by Wells, is that the morals he accuses these Christians of violating are Christian morals.
This leaves us with something of a dilemma. Is it that Mr. Wells really believes these morals to be good, right, and true and therefore condemns those who violate them? But why does he believe these morals to be good, right, and true? Why just precisely these Christian morals? You have to have the cake to have the frosting my friend. When a set of morals derives from a specific theology, you can’t discard the theology and expect the morals to stand. Is it that Mr. Wells does not believe in these morals himself but is condemning these Christians for hypocritically violating their own morals? If this is the case, I have to wonder why Mr. Wells cares at all. Mind your own business, Mr. Wells, is what I say to that.
The irony that underlines all irony is that this book was written in the 1940s — and Mr. Wells attacks the Catholic Church first and foremost because he sees the Church as the primary opponent of the modern socialist project at the head of which project Mr. Wells himself identifies Russia and China. Perhaps Mr. Wells did not realize that even at that very moment there were other atheists out there in his beloved China and Russia — atheists who took quite seriously their realization that Christianity was wrong and therefore its morals must be wrong — slaughtering innocent millions because they didn’t fit the paradigm of his brave new world. Poor Mr. Wells.
After the gulags, the famines, and the cultural revolutions, one can hardly see this book as anything but a rather off-color jest by a sorry court jester. It might have been better if Mr. Wells had stuck with writing second-rate science fiction rather than delving into third-rate politics and fourth-rate philosophy.