August 15, 2008


Raphael's School of Athens, courtesy of wikipedia.

(Note for first time visitors: The theme here lately is the Odyssey of Homer, along with links and comments about current events. If you like this kind of thing, please click on earlier posts.)

The American writer H.L. Mencken defined puritanism as "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Puritanism as a turn of mind has been around a lot longer than the dissenters from the Church of England in the 1600s.

It was a major factor in some schools of Greek philosophy, especially that of Socrates and Plato (judging by what we know of the former from the latter). Along with some other killjoys, these people criticized Homer and other poets and purveyors of Greek myth and tragedy for teaching immorality by portraying the gods as behaving badly.

They just didn't get it. As noted previously, several of these gods were at least in part personifications of natural forces: storms, the sea, wild animals, sexual desire, earthquakes, etc. And nature is not known for being moralistic. For that matter, the whole point of many myths is that humans should not try to overreach or act like gods lest they bring about their own destruction.

Socrates liked to torment lovers of myths and poetry by asking them logic-chopping questions and dismissing them if they had trouble if the whole point of art, song and story was not to speak to the conscious and unconscious and rational and irrational parts of the human psyche. And as if it was all taken literally.

Plato went farther than his teacher. In the Republic, he wanted to ban poets and only teach edifying state-approved stories to its citizens, something that has been the dream of tyrants through the ages.

Goat Rope verdict: there is arguably more enduring and useful wisdom in the Greek tragedies than the whole of Plato's corpus. Get over it, dudes, or drink the hemlock.

For many Greeks, however, there was little room for doubt. To experience awe over storms or fear over breaking oaths and mistreating hosts or guests was to experience Zeus. To experience desire was to experience Aphrodite. To cultivate the land was to honor Demeter and receive her gifts. To drink wine was to experience Dionysus. And so on.

Some of the other gods were derived from and represented human experiences, such as marriage, sickness and healing, exchanges, music and poetry, metal-working etc.

Athena, the main divine character of the Odyssey, is a special case. In that story (and to a lesser extent in the Iliad), she is experienced either openly or, more often, in disguise. Directly or indirectly, she is who/what restrains people from taking rash actions and who/what brings hope, stength and wisdom to people who were tired, forlorn or hopeless. Next time you get a boost when you need it, consider that an Athena moment.

All these examples are derived just from daily life, not counting sacred festivals or holidays. All religions make sense from the inside, and Greek religion was no exception.

ILLUSIONS OF WAR. Here's Krugman on what the war in Georgia might mean.

WAL-MART: EVERYDAY WORKER INTIMIDATION. Labor groups are urging the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether the retail giant broke any laws by telling employees the world would come to an end if they voted the wrong way.

HOME FORECLOSURES are up 55 percent from this time last year.

BAD BALLOON. Meanwhile, inflation is at its highest rate in 17 years.

VERY COOL HOT IDEA. Researchers think they've found a way to turn roads and parking lots into solar energy collectors.

IT'S OFFICIAL. Joggers live longer than people who don't exercise (most of the time).

IS THAT A BIGFOOT IN YOUR FREEZER or are you just happy to be here? Two searchers in Georgia claim to have found a dead one.


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